Brace for Impact

27 Jun

This short book was actually written in May 2013

 

‘Optimism is a moral duty’

– Karl Popper

 

CONTENT:

WAKE UP, SOMETHING IS REALLY WRONG

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT TILL IT’S GONE

WHIPLASH FROM THE JET STREAM

THE DEBATE

ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE

THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

BREAKFAST AND A STROLL IN THE PARK

ANOTHER FLIGHT

THE WINDS ARE PICKING UP

A GAME OF DOMINO

BRUISED BUT NOT MORTALLY WOUNDED

THE HURRICANE STRIKES

THE PRICE TAG

A NEW BALANCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book is about connecting the dots, not just the ecological dots, but the economic dots, the social and political dots, the dot of Ahmed losing his last cow to a drought, the dot of Ben starting the day with printing another billion dollars or so, of Sophia wondering how she will pay the school bill for her daughter Mariana, of Ketut getting desperate to pay her credit card bill while the rice prices increased by a quarter, of Mei staying home because her asthma got so bad, of Christine having a bad night fearing the start of a bank run, about little Aicha dying of shrapnel. This book is about connecting millions of dots to see a frightening picture of our world at the edge of collapse. Wake up and brace for impact, it’s the best you can do.

 

WAKE UP, SOMETHING IS REALLY WRONG

 

My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams — like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.” Hermann Hesse

 

The morning light wakes me and the sounds of birds singing the lengthening days mixed with the sounds of the traffic that has already started in earnest. It was a restless night. The moon was full and larger than it ever seemed. A car alarm had woken me at around one in the morning and the light of the shining moon had kept me awake till just before dawn. It was a beautiful, a magical night but there was unrest in everything and so sleep was kept from me for what seemed like an eternity. The beautiful moon out there took me back to the memories of Morocco more than thirty years ago when I was mesmerized by its appearance over the crystal clear darkening desert sky of the southern town of Sidi Ifni, while from a myriad of mosques the sounds of the muezzins called for evening prayer as in the stories of Thousand-and-One-Night. The deep beauty of those moments was not wasted on me then, so how strange it was that I was in deep disgust now for the young Moroccan men screwing up my culture, my city, the great city of Amsterdam, violating its dignity.

 

The morning felt brittle, perhaps because I downed a bit too much of a great, dark red Chilean cabernet sauvignon last night with dinner plus the weird feeling of being at home and at the same time not belonging here anymore mixed together in a potent potion of unease.

 

I recently left a well-paid job on the elegant shores of Lake Lugano in the south of Switzerland, because the combination of incompetent company bureaucracy and lack of will power on my side ended a multimillion Swiss franc internet project, led by me, into a failure, in fact I was sacked.

 

So I was free for the first time in twelve years to do what I liked, to form my days, my life, to shape new adventure, to open new windows onto life, to discover unknown territory. But while the unending possibilities of freedom would dizzy my mind back in the old days, when I was young, now I did not understand what was so great about it anymore and it seemed the freedom of today was as fake as about everything on my planet.

 

The Earth had shrunken and although I had not been everywhere, my mind wondered like a Google Earth or the ghost of an aborigine over it as if there were no corners left hidden anymore. With the silent speed of a drone I´d fly like a ghost a few hundred meters above the surface over the towns and fields of Europe, the choppy waters of the Black Sea and then the white capped mountains of Northern Iran, the Panshir Valley, the tricky road into Peshawar, just to land at the other side of the Yamuna to take a glimpse of the awesome beauty of the Taj Mahal. With the same ease, as if I´d belong to the neighbourhood, I´d walk the streets of Sao Paulo, cycle the clay paths through the paddy fields in Tamil Nadu, straggle drunken through the summer nights of Moscow or pick lavender the from fragrant fields of the Provence. So I flew and walked the Earth and back, crossed the ocean with greater ease than visiting my parents forty kilometres from here and yet, I feel trapped, we are trapped on this planet with nowhere to go. And something is amiss in our home. Something is profoundly amiss. At all levels of existence. My freedom is leaving me, it is being chewed up by an intense, swelling chaos as if the vibrations of the atoms are not in sink anymore. There seems to be discord in everything, even the animals do not seem as happy as they were, as if they expected an earthquake. I am left on my planet without a place to call home, because these days life itself feels uncanny, everywhere. And yet life seems to go on as normal. Below the windows of my apartment, the traffic has started to jam and cyclist are happily racing past the stagnating cars, embracing the beauty of the morning. I need to get up, start my day.

Coffee, I need coffee! I get out of my bed, turn on CNN and look at the latest numbers killed in and around the Gaza strip: the score is Palestinians 740, Israelis 5, someone must be playing in the wrong league. The Syrians are killing each other like flies too, though the number of homicides in Brazil´s favelas still tops that. The Turks are fighting for their liberties on the barricades in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir where the fault line between Islam and Western Democracy produces a large earthquake.

My Nespresso is lovely, made extra frothy, chemically designed in a laboratory at the cost of millions of R&D. Harmless according to the mice who ate the equivalent of tonnes of the stuff. It is the perfection of marketing, with George Clooney thrown into the deal to make it into a ‘’must have’’ gadget. His invoice was probably as high as the R&D one, but my coffee is lovely with two small pills added for sweetness but no calories, a token act of healthy behaviour for this overweight guy.

Wall Street is up and the Eurocrisis has a day off. But the Fukushima clean up remains a disaster with new reports of radioactivity entering into the food chain. Fresh reports are coming in of Muslims being killed in Myanmar. The dictatorial calm apparently is making way for pent up anger to be released and Aung San Suu Kyi cannot orate from behind a fence anymore, but has to walk the political mine field to become prime minister, so she is unable to unequivocally condemn the atrocities.  All our moral compasses seem broken, Nelson Mandela is in his last days and Desmond Tutu is in hospital. Torrential rains killed dozens of people in mid-Java, Ecuador and Rio de Janeiro state, while baskets of beans and rice are being handed out to the subsistence farmers of Bahia, dealing with the worst drought anybody alive can recall.

Why am I so afraid? Because I see the signs of a perfect storm approaching fast, a lethal mix of overpopulation, moral, political and ecological degradation, combined with extreme weather events caused by global warming, distorting food production, lack of water for two billion or so, a financial system that is broke and will collapse on itself, an economy that can only be sustained if it is growing, which it can’t because the ecological and social friction is getting to severe,  a production chain that gets interrupted more and more because of floods, droughts, storms and mounting civil unrest. The casino capitalism with its harmful emphasis on ever increasing asset prices and material consumption, is the largest Ponzi scheme ever invented. That bill will to will need to be paid in the years to come, when that house of cards comes down, and is in its last days. About a billion Muslims and a billion or so Westerners hate each other’s guts, both rightfully pointing out their beliefs are broken beyond repair. And no new spiritual, political, economic or ecological answer to the storm that is heading our way, seems to emerge.  Meanwhile the population is growing with about two hundred thousand a day, while probably as many get dislocated that same day in China, Myanmar, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, the Congo, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the USA, Europe, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. All over the planet, millions of simple people are feeling the pressure going up, trying to keep a minimum of decency and dignity going, while the price of bread is going up in Egypt as subsidies are no longer sustainable and the price of tomatoes in Brazil went up because of torrential rains and the price of beans (a staple for Brazilians) has more than doubled because of drought. In Bali workers who make two hundred dollars per month grow desperate because they were enticed to getting a credit card and now the bills with criminally high interest keep on piling up, maybe they have to pull their kids out of school to pay for them. But even a ten thousand dollar a month family with a mortgage, two financed cars and bills to pay for kindergarten, do not seem to get by anymore. The pressure is mounting on almost everyone, every day and something has to give. My fear is, it will be larger than anything we have seen since the dawn of man. It will be ugly, it could be the end of dignity. We better brace for impact.

 

 

YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU GOT TILL IT’S GONE

So, but why all this fear? There have always been wars, droughts, famines, refugees. The Irish Potato Famine in the mid nineteenth century took a million lives and started a wave of migration to the United States, but the country bounced back and is fine now, even after going through a deep recession for the last couple of years. Droughts in China and India have killed tens of millions in the past centuries and the population kept on growing and actually has gotten more food secure due to better crops varieties, better storage and transport capabilities and more resilient, more powerful economies in general. The great drought of 2010 and 2011 in China left without any sign of famine.

So why so gloomy, why would the future be any different? Throughout history millions and millions of people have died of violence and natural disasters. And so many things on this planet are going great! Look at what the internet has accomplished. The medical advances are enormous and millions of Chinese, Indian and Brazilian youths enter the marketplace with good educations, all but securing them a comfortable life and increasing the level of their societies. The USA is legalizing eight million young illegals, giving them a great chance to make something of their lives and giving the economy a shot in the arm at the same time. So many examples of places where life is getting better, Ethiopia, South-Africa, Colombia, Indonesia, Croatia, Poland, just to name a few. Why am I so obsessed with a global disintegration of human society and why would you waste your time listening to me? Surely you got better things to do, or at least more pleasant ones than reading the words of yet another loony doomsday prophet. I hope you have the patience to hear me out why I fear the potion of bad forces this time is so much more powerful, so more widespread and so much more destructive than, let’s say World War I and II combined.

It is this uncanny combination of globalisation, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, degradation of the environment, the effects of global warming, including economic, social and moral feedback loops that are exponentially increasing its effect and tearing at the fabric of societies, together with a clash of civilisations all coming together into what is fomenting a perfect storm of which we already feel the outer bands and the impact of this lethal concoction will be very severe.

What I am convinced of is that the intricately crafted tapestry of our global human society, the eco system of all of us, with all its interwoven connectivity, is being degraded by a multitude of smaller and larger events that sap the strength, the resilience of the whole and we are very near to seeing great ruptures, triggered by events that, in and by itself, would not have been a major threat to the world as a whole, just a generation ago.

 

I kept putting off writing this book because from whatever side I looked at what was coming at us, it was too overwhelming and I had no reason to turn out such a miserable message with initially no answers. The best advice I initially could think of, was, buy a piece of agricultural land to grow food that you can reach with your bicycle. I told a friend then that all these forces interacting on each other speeded up the breakdown, so that we could see global economic collapse no later than 2018 or as a best case scenario a world economy that stagnates around bust banks, with a slow disintegration of the world trade systems, slowly deteriorating. Food production will get hit more and more by extreme weather events and oil price shocks, sending food prices through the roof again, triggering starvation in the most vulnerable places on Earth on an overwhelming scale. Although this economic downfall or stagnation will probably be triggered by the second collapse of the financial system, which was only saved by an infusion of trillions of dollars, euros, pounds and yens, the real root cause of the trouble is the overpopulation and the exhaustion of limited natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, combined with the extreme weather effects accompanying global warming, triggering more and more shocks in the global economy and food production, which triggers more and more civil unrest and chaos. But other events could be the tipping point as well, like a similar financial crisis in China, a massive war in the Middle East or mass demonstrations by youths worldwide who know instinctively that their future is being squandered by governments with only the next elections as a horizon.

 

But these are all fears, let’s try to look at the facts a little more rational. Where to start? There are so many angles? Let’s start with the basic elements of human life on our planet: air, water, earth, light or fire and a bit later, the most elusive one of all, spirit.

 

A recent article in Nature from a group of Harvard University researchers, analysing evidence from Arctic tree rings, ice cores, lake sediments and thermometer records, showed that summers in the northern hemisphere are now warmer than at any period in six centuries and that recent  warm temperature extremes in high northern latitudes. The summers of 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2011 were warmer than those of all prior years back to 1400, they reported. The summer of 2010 was the warmest in western Russia, and probably in western Greenland and western Canada as well.

 

The White House has been briefed that the Arctic Sea could be ice free by 2015 for the first time (not 2040 as was predicted by pessimist scientists five years ago), triggering a massive change in jet stream patterns, triggering wildly gyrating weather patterns in North America, Europe and Northern Asia, triggering disasters like floods and droughts, triggering partial crop failures.

 

LONDON, Dec 18, 2012 (Reuters) – Coal will nearly overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017, and only a drop in world gas prices could curb the use of the dirtier fossil fuel in the absence of high carbon prices,’’ the International Energy Agency said. The IEA, the energy agency for developed countries, said earlier this year that without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.

 

Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency warned in 2011 that oil production already peaked in 2006. Since the publication in 1998 of the oil geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère published their famous article “The End of Cheap Oil” in the journal “Scientific American”, the peaking of production and the depletion of the world’s supplies have been firmly anchored in the consciousness of decision makers. Oil prices have increased by six hundred percent since 1998 and are now hovering around the hundred dollar mark for the last three years, up from twelve dollars then. The price tag is now simply fixed because of weak demand since the 2008 crisis. Any major increase in the world economy would immediately be dampened again by a rapid increase of the oil price again. The economy has bumped its head against a very firm ceiling.

 

Here are some conclusions from the report called: Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the Supply Outlook, published in March 2013 by the Energy Watch Group, a group of scientists and parliamentarians who monitor the world energy situation for the sake of developing strategies for the future.

 

‘’According to our study, coal and gas production will reach their respective production peaks around 2020. The combined peak of all fossil fuels will occur a few years earlier than the peaking of coal and gas and will almost coincide with the beginning decline of oil production. Therefore, the decline of oil production – which is expected to start soon – will lead to a rising energy gap which will become too large to be filled by natural gas and/or coal. Substituting oil by other fossil fuels will also not be possible in case gas and coal production would continue to grow at the present rate. Moreover, a further rise of gas and coal production soon will deplete these resources in a way similar to oil.

The energy contribution of nuclear fuels is too low in order to have any significant influence at global level, though this might be different for some countries. Moreover uranium production experiences the same restrictions as fossil fuels – the depletion of easy and cheap to develop mines.’’

 

If what they conclude in a very detailed and convincing report, is correct, we will be looking at increased energy and food prices within just a few years, unless demand decreases sharply.

The link between oil and food prices should not be underestimated. A University of Michigan study points out that every major point in the industrial food system – chemical fertilisers, pesticides, farm machinery, food processing, packaging and transportation – is dependent on high oil and gas inputs. A fifth of our oil and gas use goes into food production.

 

In his open letter to the President Elect in the New York Times on 12 October 2008, less than a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, with the world economy crashing into its worst recession since the Great Depression, Michael Pollan, wrote in a plea to overhaul the food production of the USA:

 

‘’After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent. And while the experts disagree about the exact amount, the way we feed ourselves contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than anything else we do — as much as 37 percent, according to one study. Whenever farmers clear land for crops and till the soil, large quantities of carbon are released into the air. But the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.’’

 

So with the peaking of oil production in 2006 and the peaking of gas production in a few years from now, with the energy intensive agricultural production system as it is organised now, things do not look great for food prices in the coming years with about two hundred thousand extra mouths to feed every day. Add to that the increasing whiplash food production gets from extreme weather events and you can see that the problem gets bigger. But world leaders are too busy to try to avoid a second collapse of the world economy to worry about the collapse of the world ecology, which is by far the greatest risk to the world’s security and economic viability. Key to understanding the mess we are in already, is the nexus between food and energy prices, between food production and CO2 emissions and between CO2 emissions and a changing climate.

 

Our wealth is largely based on the burning of fossil fuels used in cars, ships and airplanes to transport us, factories to produce everything we want, power plants to give us electricity and combines, fertilizer and other things to grow our food. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases like methane are rising steadily and we recently crossed the 400 particles per million limit. While western economies have been reducing their emissions slowly, these have been completely offset by the rapid expansion of China’s economy and to a lesser extent by India’s economy and Indonesia’s rapid agricultural expansion, aided by clearing large tracts of land by burning the vegetation. Huge peat fires in the Russian tundra’s, dying trees in the Amazon and Canada are aiding the quick release of extra CO2, currently stored in the Earth’s vegetation.

In Canada alone, the increase of the mountain pine beetle has killed 18 million hectares of pine wood in the last ten years or so. Possible other large scale effects are the diminished capacity of the oceans to absorb CO2 due to increased temperature and acidity and the possible melting of the permafrost in the Arctic zones of Europe, Asia and North America, giving way to the decay of the peat that is stored in those CO2 storage sinks. While the latter two effects do not seem to take place at any real scale yet, we should be very much aware of the possibility of all these feedback loops together with the ice-albedo effect of the diminishing Arctic ice cover could are very well capable of creating a self-perpetuating process feeding on itself with heat increasing CO2, increasing heat till we have Hell on Earth. But mind you, the current extreme weather effects we are witnessing now like large droughts, heat waves, extreme storms and torrential rainfall, are caused by climate change triggered by the greenhouse gases we have poured into the atmosphere in the last fifty years. The effect of greenhouse gases released today will affect us in the decades to come. This book is about the effects we are encountering right now and the next few years.

 

About twenty years back I visited Lake Eyasi in Northern Tanzania. The dry and dusty low lying land there gets interrupted by lush green bushes and marshes from springs, delivering water from the volcanic mountains around the famous Ngoro Ngoro crater. The lake itself gets its water from Mount Oldeani, towering more than three thousand meter over the landscape. The fresh spring water, bubbling up in the area has created beautiful small enclaves of lush green. These enchanting niches full of old trees, bamboo, vines and papyrus reeds are a refuge for dozens of different kinds of birds, spotted civets, gracious serval cats, bush babies and other wonderful smaller creatures. The wider area, full of mighty baobab trees was also home to some pygmies who were still hunting with bow and arrow and gathering food and got water from plant roots as they showed to my friend Hans and myself. On the east side of the lake drab hamlets housed a despondent community of extremely poor people. One lady offered her services to me for a beer. Now that was definitely not an offer I was going to consider as the HIV rate in the area topped ninety percent of the adult population. That evening I did have a couple of beers though with two German students who were on a field study trying to investigate why the HIV rate had gotten so out of hand and why nobody had taken precaution when there still was a chance despite large hand outs of free condoms. It turned out that everybody was well aware of the dangers of AIDS and the way the disease was transmitted. So far the NGO’s had done a brilliant job in a largely analphabetic community. The larger problem was that the average incubation time from HIV infection to full blown AIDS was a timeline that nobody was considering as a real threat to them as they would probably die earlier of hunger, malaria or violence, making AIDS a very remote risk in comparison to the threats they had to deal with here and now.

 

The immense problem of the energy-food connection is being pushed back on the agenda for large, but still smaller problems of declining wealth, unemployment and pear shaped bank balance sheets.

We should wish that the looming energy crisis was the only threat to our food production. A large number of recent extreme weather events have had immediate consequences. Example: the extremely hot Russian summer, combined with low rainfall decreased grain production in southern Russia, Kazakhstan and other neighbouring countries to such an extent that Russia declared an export ban to protect its local food supply. This caused world market wheat prices to spike. This made the price of bread increase rapidly and becoming a major factor in the triggering of the Arab spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria, before being lowered by unsustainable bread subsidies in those countries. Incidentally, while the great crash of 2008 is attributed to the fall in housing prices in the USA, major commodities, including the price of oil, metals, rice and wheat spiked in 2007 to record levels only to cave in as the financial crisis set in. The causes of that crisis need to be looked into more profoundly as well.

 

WHIPLASH FROM THE JET STREAM

Now let us look a bit closer to this particular major heat wave in Russia, one of many that took place over the last few years. We will soon see there is a direct connection with the epic floods devastating Pakistan at the same time.

The northern polar jet stream is one of the main forces affecting weather in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a high atmosphere wind pattern, flowing from west to east on an altitude of seven to twelve kilometers, with a width of a couple of hundred kilometers and a height of around three kilometers. Its speed can vary from less than hundred to record speeds of almost four hundred kilometers per hour, according to Wikipedia. Its engine is the difference in temperature between the Arctic and the warmer areas more to the south in Canada, the USA, Europe and Siberia. In recent times, the Arctic area has warmed up much faster than the rest of the planet, making the temperature differences smaller. The jet stream has both started to slow down and is showing a much more snake like pattern than it did before, when it was moving in a more straight line from west to east. If you are at one side of the snake you get more heat and droughts and if you are at the other side of it, you get more cold and precipitation. If the snake does not move, the cold, wet weather or the hot, dry weather, gets stuck. Of course the scientist are cautious about a climate change link, but with the Arctic ice melting rapidly, the observing amateur can simply assume that the dots connect and when you estimate risks it is unwise to err on the conservative side.

The 2010 Pakistan floods began in late July 2010, resulting from heavy monsoon rains in the northern regions of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, thus overflowing the Indus and its tributaries, which were already carrying more water due to snow and glacier melt from the weeks before. From July 28 to August 3 parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district recorded 3500 mm of rainfall, about four times more than the yearly average. The monsoon rains normally hit the largely flat Punjab area more to the southwest, with its broad, slow, winding rivers that can digest huge amounts of water. This time the  far northern and north-western rugged mountains regions were hit with extreme amounts of rain, triggering flash floods that devastated the area, destroying houses, washed away bridges and roads, including parts of the famous Karakoram highway, killing thousands in its path before finally moving on to western China where another twelve hundred people died in floods and landslides. The week that followed brought another five hundred millimetre of rain to the Punjab and rain kept on coming till the end of September. The disaster flooded around one-fifth of Pakistan’s total land area, approximately the size of Syria or the US state of Oklahoma. Eight million people were made homeless by the floods and about twenty million were directly affected, mostly by destruction of property, livelihood and infrastructure. The official death toll stands at close to two thousand, but the locals say the death toll is far higher, with thousands of people never accounted for. The causes of the disaster is a combination of many factors that contributed to this ‘perfect flood’, many that could be attributed to climate change. Forest cover in Pakistan has been reduced rapidly in the last decade and the country that was forty percent covered in 1947, the year it got independent, has now probably less than 5% cover, with the Northern part basically stripped of its forests. Unseasonably high spring temperatures had already filled the rivers with glacier and snow melt when the rains hit the mountains further north than usual. Meanwhile the jet stream over Asia came down very southern in June and stayed there till half August, blocking the monsoon clouds to go further north. At the same time that the great floods were forming, another great disaster was taking place north of the great mountain ranges: the worst heat wave in the history of Russia, killing tens of thousands of people, scorching twenty million hectares of forests and cutting the Russian and wheat harvest by thirty-five million tons or a third of the total with similar stories in Kazakhstan and the Ukraine. Climate experts are indicating that there might be a direct relation between the Russian heat wave, the jet stream, the monsoon pattern that hit Pakistan and the melting Arctic ice cap, accompanied by rising sea temperatures in the Arctic. The wheat export ban by the Russian government triggered a huge price spike, causing trouble in the Arab states where bread is the staple and wheat needs to be imported.

But I hope your appetite for extreme weather is not over yet, because just since 2010 a whole lot of other things have happened. What about the persistent drought in the USA and northern Mexico the past couple of years. This drought has been the most devastating since the infamous dust bowl in the 1930 with large impacts on the production of corn, soya beans and cattle. In Mexico alone, nearly 900,000 hectares of farmland were devastated, and 1.7 million head of livestock were lost, while the number of cattle in the USA has dropped to its lowest level in sixty years. The effect probably knocked off one percent of GDP and is still ongoing.

 

Let’s go to the other side of the Earth. China, the world most populous country, needs to produce extra food for thirty-five thousand mouths a day despite attempts to reign in its population. That together with an increasing appetite of its swelling middle class, deforestation and desertification in the north and dwindling glacier melt in the south, could well become a problem sooner, rather than later. In 2010 a large area of China and all the way into Vietnam and Thailand was affected by higher than average temperatures and lower precipitation, affecting tens of millions of people directly in terms of water shortages, failed or diminished crops.

 

And just a few more disasters recently affecting enormous parts of the planet:

Flooding and Cyclone in Eastern Australia – December 2010 – January 2011

A series of floods affected hundreds of thousands of people in an area the size of Germany and France together. Major loss of wheat, fruits and vegetable production occurred.

 

Drought in the horn of Africa 2011 – 2013

 

The largest drought in more than sixty years has left at least ten million people threatened with extinction in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. A quarter of a million have died already. This time also the abundant wildlife in Kenya has been severely affected, creating problems for its all-important wildlife tourism industry amongst other things.

Drought in North Eastern Brazil – 2011-2013.

The largest drought in living memory has affected more than twenty million people in North Eastern Brazil, damaging everything from sugar cane and soya bean production to cattle farming and electricity production. Rationing of water is underway in large tracts of the area as well as in major cities and millions of cattle died or were brought to the slaughterhouse for lack of fodder.

 

Thailand flooding 2011

 

Severe flooding occurred during the 2011 monsoon season in Thailand affecting large areas of North-eastern and Central Thailand along the Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins. In October floodwaters reached the mouth of the Chao Phraya and inundated parts of the capital city of Bangkok. Flooding persisted in some areas until mid-January 2012, and resulted in a total of eight hundred deaths and fourteen million people affected. Over twenty thousand square kilometres of farmland was damaged. The flood left a total of one third of the country under water at some time during its slow progress towards the see. Something the size of Bangladesh.

 

This list could be extended with dozens of events during the same period, affecting merely tens of thousands of people and incidentally saw New York being hit by a tropical cyclone, flooding a sixth of the city.

 

THE DEBATE

 

Let’s first end the debate on whether these events are connected to climate change. How? Simple, to realize that it would not be the smartest thing to do to wait for a hundred percent confirmation that there is in fact a connection and waste time trying to do something to minimize its impact on you. If there is even a small chance that the connection is true and the connection is as strong as some predictions, we have to change the way we live on a war footing! At the same time there is ample proof that we are already at the peak of the production of fossil fuel, which leaves us no choice as to convert our fuel guzzling economy into a more efficient one, based on sustainable energy. Both issues call for the same measures and both, if left unchanged, will bring depression and misery to our world. The question is not if, but when. Of course a lot of things are moving in the right direction and thousands of initiatives are well underway, but it is like strolling away from the beach while a tsunami wave is rolling in. But no matter what we do, we will suffer the consequences anyway big time. We should have made the changes the last forty years or so, but if we had, we would still have to deal with overpopulation, which calls for drastic reduction of population growth in the most rapidly growing countries, we would have to deal with depleting fresh water stocks, which calls for a worldwide water management overhaul, and we would have to deal soil degradation, which calls for massive reforestation, reintroduction of sustainable agriculture and restoration of enormous stretches of damaged ecosystems.  Predictions about the rise in global temperature seem to get worse by the month. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated in 2007 that we should limit global temperature rise to two degrees by 2100, some predictions are now pointing to six degrees by 2050, which could mean utter collapse of human society on Earth. On the other hand, the global temperature rise has seemed to stall the last ten, fifteen years, according to a lot of recent data, contradicting the development. This could have several causes like change in solar activity or an increasing amount of smaller volcanic eruptions. The past century saw decades of warming and other decades without warming, sometimes a bit of cooling. The most likely cause is the absorption of the heat at deeper levels of the world’s oceans and we’d better not relax because of this event, as climate models expect rises and soon the trend might look completely different again.
The problem is that our whole planetary ecosystem is too complex for computer models, so all the predictions have a much higher uncertainty than acknowledged. Scientists are bumping against the limits of what they can do to serve us with input for decisions. The uncertainty in their models makes it difficult to give the right advise, which currently could be anything from ‘’global warming will not be enough to change much of anything, don’t need to do a lot and you have time to do it, but since we run out of oil, sustainable energy would be a good idea’’ to ‘’pushing the panic button, increase the dykes, store food, close the shutters’’.

 

I recently went to a barbecue party of my sister. She lives on the edge of one the largest forest areas in the Netherlands on a ridge of hills overlooking the Rhine valley. These hills were formed by an Ice Age way back when the advancing glaciers of the era pushed sands and rocks ahead of them, changing the course of the meandering rivers in the vast delta area that covers much of my small native country. Anyway, when I arrived at her house, my sister, her husband and their off spring were sitting inside and apart from the tables and the chairs, nothing was set out to have a nice time in the garden. She told me, we had to wait, because her app told her that we would have a downpour around six p.m. Since I had just driven through the countryside, I had seen what looked like a nice spring day, slightly overcast but nothing much to worry about. I asked her if she had looked at the sky and her answer was that her app was reliable, so we would set the table after the downpour. My proposal was that we all stepped out to observe the sky and vote on the likelihood of the downpour. We did and decided with a small majority that we could start the fire and set the table. The downpour time came and went, I think we observed a few drops of rain. The grilled meat was rather tender and the wine made us all very merry.

Imagine all this mind boggling technology connection smart phones to the GPD, connected to radar systems measuring cloud thickness, a complete infrastructure of human ingenuity installed at the costs of tens of billions of dollars and downloaded by my sister for free. It is absolutely incredible and amazing! It is also amazing that she forgot to look up to the sky.

 

So, what I am trying to say is, that we should thank all the climatologists for their hard work, which for the sake of mankind they should continue with focus and tenacity and we will not blame them if their predictions are wrong very often because of the immense complexity of the weather systems. Besides that, they are dealing with climate, we are dealing with extreme weather events, depleting supplies of fossil fuels, degradation of fresh water supplies and top soil, of overpopulation and collapsing financial systems, of waves of migration and the extinction of numerous animal and plant species. Their input is important but in the end it is instinct that will or will not guide us through data input of such a magnitude and diversity. And my instinct, based on a lot of absolutely unscientific observation, tells me we have a big, big problem and we better start preparing very fast.

 

So far we mainly looked at the impending disaster that I am so gloomy about, talking from a point of view of extreme weather events and climate change and depletion of carbon based fuels. The trouble is that overpopulation and the degradation of habitat are already game changers in and by themselves that are increasing the stress on local populations of vulnerable areas, enough so to trigger migration and fights over the increasingly scarce resources. Abundant evidence has been found that the disastrous conflict in Darfur, in which almost ten percent of the six million strong population was killed or massacred and half the population was dislocated, was triggered by overgrazing and drought that triggered the nomadic population led by the Janjaweed to attack the sedentary agricultural based population, leading to large extinction in the area as well as a refugee stream to surrounding countries like Chad and the Central African Republic, which in itself became more and more destabilised. The Rwandan tragedy holds many roots in ecological problems of rapid population increase, increasing land scarcity and unsustainable agricultural practices leading to depletion of soil fertility.

 

Evidence is mounting that the Syrian civil war, politically seen as part of the Arab Spring, has been triggered in part by recurring droughts in the preceding years, depletion of aquifers and an increasing migration by poor rural people to the big cities for lack of alternatives on their traditional home lands, combined with the influx of a million refugees from the Iraq invasion and civil war. So climate change seems to have functioned as a stress multiplier leading to a collapse of a relatively peaceful society (although be it ruthlessly governed by a merciless elite) into an ungoverned area where sorrow is piling up, food production is nose diving and millions of refugees are displaced in large part to neighbouring countries. Whereas Turkey can handle this, having a strong economy and a well organised army and state, the effect on Jordan could be dire if not carefully managed and a domino effect could take place. Apart from that, large amounts of advanced and dangerous weapons, including chemical weapon stock, are getting in the hands of increasingly radicalised groups that could trigger new conflicts in the area involving Israel (and therefore the USA and NATO), the Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia with the likely spill over to a completely desperate Egyptian population.

 

We can make a similar analyses for a large number of countries on the brink of disintegration where a combination of overpopulation, natural degradation and extreme weather events have led to such extreme stresses that the population is at a breaking point. The delta area of Egypt, Bangladesh, large parts of Pakistan and Nigeria are nearing the point of gliding into permanent chaos. If it is true what I say, nearly ten percent of the world population living in these four countries alone, could well see the collapse of the state within a few years, again triggering enormous unrest, stress on food production, atrocities along ethnic and religious fault lines and then migration to surrounding areas and on to Europe and in the case of Bangladesh, to India.

 

If you think this is exaggerated, I would like you to go have a look at a place like Lagos, Dhaka or the popular areas of Cairo or Karachi. Places where life is so degraded that an outsider entering into it would decry it as Hell on Earth. Still a very large part of the local population in these cities is eking out a living amidst squalor and absolutely degrading circumstances.  It seems they have no idea how life would be ‘’at the other side of the fence’’ and for the sake of your children, you do not want them all to come and find out!

 

Well, the facts are different. Large numbers of them have found out already, flooding the streets of London, Rome, Kolkata and Paris, crossing borders illegally, traversing deserts and seas at the risk of death to get the hell out of there, only to find just a different version of hell in countries that have great difficulty to absorb them culturally, socially and economically. The Greek-Turkish border was seeing an estimated four thousand illegal entries a day until the construction of a wall on the most vulnerable parts was started with the help of EU funding. Greece, itself reeling under the weight of the worst economic downturn in living memory has probably more than a million illegal immigrants on its soil now, roughly ten percent of its population.

 

So while most of us agree on the fact that climate change is happening together with overpopulation, ecological degradation, rising sea levels, most also think it is something that will happen over the course of decades and we still have time to work out solutions, my story is different. Extreme oscillations of the weather on the northern hemisphere are increasing rapidly and as a direct effect of the summer melt of the Arctic sea ice and the ensuing rapid warming of the polar water temperatures, leading to a lot of feedback loops, rapidly and exponentially deteriorating the situation, already leading to catastrophes way beyond the average patterns of the past, not in the decades to come, but in 2010, 2011, 2012, and probably this year and the next. Meanwhile a recent study showed that sea level rises were up from 2 millimetres per year to 3.2 millimetres, a sixty percent increase from the 2007 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment. Although I have no idea how they get to calculate this into parts of millimetres as most seas I have seen are pretty choppy and three centimetres in ten years from now, wouldn’t exactly scare the hell out of me, I have noticed in many coastal areas that the sea somehow seems to be more erosive, mainly during violent storms. Let’s not forget that in the tropics large stretches of coastline are protected by coral reefs which are being degraded rapidly by a combination of increased ocean temperature and acidity. The same goes for mangrove forests, which have been damaged or removed on large stretches of tropical coastline. These wave breakers are getting less and less effective because of the decay that has set in, while the high tides have increased a bit. You can do the math.

 

It is curious to observe how a lot of predictions of climate change effects are getting rapidly worse in the last year or so. A lot of current trends in the development of our Earth’s weather patterns are way beyond the worst case scenario’s predicted a few years ago and are possibly showing exponential developments. Soon the wheels could come off before we reach the garage for repair of what started as a small wobble during our ride. Scientists are very familiar with non-linear processes like the famous butterfly effect and other feedback loops that occur in natural systems. Famously, wild fires can grow exponentially as they feed on themselves and cross thresholds, bringing them suddenly into an explosive state. Ecosystems have been observed to start getting weirder and suddenly collapse into chaos. Or simpler still, ice becoming water becoming vapour. A simple chemical substance made up of hydrogen and oxygen goes from solid – in which state life is extremely difficult, into a liquid form – in which state life suddenly gets pretty abundant, into a vapour where all but the simplest life forms already disappeared. People die of a fever higher than 42 degrees of massive cell death, just a bit higher than the temperature that photosynthesis stops in green plants.

 

I am no scientist and have no recent history of fighting the ecological deterioration, which makes me suspect as a writer on this subject. Yet, I have taken the trouble of reading a lot of scientific papers and other articles on these issues (mind you, the more technical ones I simply fail to understand) and these by and large confirm my observations travelling our planet that a big change, a huge deterioration has started to happen. I see thousands of scientists warning against the possible impact of what we could call a global tipping point in the Earth’s biosphere, while at the same time very few in society as a whole make the connection of climate change and ecological deterioration going hand in with economic crises and social disruption already. The dynamic equilibrium of peace of stable societies is undermined and tensions increase, flaring up into social conflict, into civil war and finally into wide scale global conflict. This process starts piecemeal and slow, but it can trigger avalanches of deterioration, feeding on themselves. But the deterioration is not just on a level of our atmosphere and habitat, it is simultaneously happening in human society.

 

ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE

 

Above Dante’s Gate of Hell the following poem is written:

 

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate

 

Through me you enter the way to the suffering city,

Through me the everlasting pain,

Through me you meet the lost people.

Justice was the inspiration,

Divine power created me,

Through high wisdom and deep love.

Nothing was, except created by me,

Except for the Eternal, which am I.

Abandon all hope – You Who Enter Here.’

 

Dante’s hell is the punishment for all that committed a long list of sins, from atheism, lust, gluttony and usury to greed, anger and heresy, fraud and treachery. But in a sense it is a state of mind, torturing the people with unbearable imbalance in their existence. Somehow it seems we are getting restless and it is connected to the increasing population, information overload as well as with our increasing disconnect with nature. We are craving for more and in fact our economic theory is now that we need to grow in material wealth to stay happy. Although cruelty, corruption and cynical behavior of the powerful are of all times, it seems all these imbalanced attitudes towards life seem to strongly on the increase as if intuitively millions feel that the only way to survive is to fight for your life (Get rich or die tryin’). While this is a perfectly rational approach to the problems of a youngster in a slum, it is this behavior that makes him into a pest for society. But it was taught by us. Daily he sees on television how rich men, in a seemingly carefree world live in large villas, driving deluxe cars surround themselves by gorgeous women, drinking champagne. They need a Ferrari, rather than a clean neighborhood, they want to be a drug dealer, rather than a doctor. It is a logical choice if all we have to offer to them is a world where money is God, the shopping mall has replaced the temple and drugs give you a temporary buzz away from the noisy, smelly, dangerous places they live in. And these kids grow up into monsters, quite often under the influence of drugs and alcohol, committing the vilest of crimes in the cities of the America’s, from Chicago to Tijuana to El Salvador to Caracas and Sao Paulo, where yearly more than 150.000 people get murdered, mainly young males.

 

In a less violent way, but more vicious in another way, the young Muslim men who took part in the riots of Paris in 2005 and more or less have taken over large parts of the cities in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Spain are part of the same phenomena. Only here the craving to become rich comes with a revulsion for the societies they grew up in, but do not belong to. All western women are whores, gays are lower than dogs. And here the underlying message is that with tenacity and enough offspring, they will conquer these lands and drive out the kafirs, the unbelievers. Now these young people are not victims of climate change, they are the product of colonial pasts, industrial labor migration, ignorant parents and dirt poverty at home. But their behavior is completely contrary that of their parents who came here first, humbly doing menial jobs. And if you visit a city like Marseille today, France’s second largest city, you know that this place does no longer belong to France.

 

In my life I have seen a lot of people living simple, content lives being happy seeing their children grow up, rearing their garden and their animals on small pieces of land. Poor in money and vulnerable to the cost of illness and adversity, yet, being happy or at least content and proud to send their kids to school in spotlessly clean school uniforms, costing them an arm and a leg. While more and more of the world population lives in megacities and more people now live in cities than in rural areas, this has gone at the cost of destructing uncomplicated, simple lifestyles that a lot of people were accustomed to. The low prices for agricultural produce is one reason why small farmers give way to immense agricultural companies, which with all machinery, the latest technology and enormous tracks of land, with the input of a lot of fossil fuels in gasoline and fertilizers, are able to produce at prices a family with an acre or two could never manage.

 

Suddenly I must think of Koineth, a young Masai, used to herding his cattle through the vast planes of the Masai Mara, sometimes encountering a pride of lions or a pack of hyenas. In the tourist season he would guide some visitors along the cattle paths of the area to make some money for cloth and other simple necessities which he kept in his hut in the boma, a traditional village in the form of coral of mud and dung huts, surrounded by a fence of sticks and thorny acacia branches to keep out predators at night and the cows and the goats in. Koineth was friendly and pleasant but aloof and kept a certain distance to us. He was formal and proud. When passing a local shop made of wooden planks, but with a fridge, I offered him something to drink and he said, ‘’a black soda, please’’, meaning Coca Cola and I was amazed that this brand’s perfect marketing machine selling carbonated water with some caramel and sugar, still had not penetrated every last soul on this planet.

One way trips to the planet Mars are now being planned. The only signs of life to be expected there are a Chinese restaurant, a Heineken beer and a Coca Cola add, right?

 

The year after I bought Koineth a black soda, a drought set in in large parts of East Africa, killing a lot of livestock of the Masai together with hundreds of thousands of zebra’s, antelopes, elephants and other herbivores and with them many beasts that pray on them. I wonder how he is. Chances are that he joined the million and a half dwellers of Nairobi’s slums like Kibera, where half the population lives in abysmal circumstances.

 

So what do we do? If this friendly young man together with a couple of million others knock at our doors one day soon because their livelihood was destroyed by drought and ensuing conflict. Will we let them in? Will we have a solution for them? Currently the number of displaced people is estimated at around 45 million people, about the population of Spain or Colombia. But that does not account for many who left their homes silently because of encroaching problems like the increased salinity of agricultural land in Bangladesh, the stream of migrant workers in Nigeria who are trying to make a buck in the big city because their livelihoods were destroyed by floods of drought. It could easily be double this number, more the population of Germany or that of Australia, Canada and the Benelux countries combined and could easily double within a few years with just a few more natural disasters and increased conflict. And they will be demanding a right to live, somehow, somewhere.

 

When have you read this last? The Universal declaration of Human Rights. It is about time you refresh your mind and reread one of the most important documents in the history of Man:

 

THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS

 

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

 

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

 

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

 

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

 

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

 

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

 

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

 

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

 

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

 

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

 

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

 

Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

 

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

 

Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

 

Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination. ….

 

Article 13. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. 2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

 

Article 14. 1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. 2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations. ……

 

Article 17. 1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

 

Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

 

Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. …

 

Article 22. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

 

Article 23. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. …

 

Article 24. Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

 

Article 25. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

 

Article 26. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. ….

 

Article 28. Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

 

Article 29. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society…

 

Great, isn’t it? I took out a few articles, it is rather long and pretentious in today’s context. Aren’t you in shock and awe how much rights each of us has under this declaration? Although it is not a law in itself, its principles have found their way to all kinds of treaties that now form part of the international body of law and has been incorporated in part in many constitutions of countries around the world. This highpoint of civilization came into existence after one of the most terrible episodes of destruction in the history of humanity, the Second World War. This war saw large scale destruction and immeasurable misery at the cost of some ninety million lives, but never succeeded in interrupting the growth of the world population. Highly educated and enlightened people gathered together in the United Nations to adopt this document in the General Assembly of that body in 1948, when around 2.3 billion people were walking the Earth and communication between continents was a fairly primitive affair. I am sure you can agree with everything that is said in this document and you’d definitely want it to should apply to you, right? But should it apply to Bangladeshis working in sweatshops for two dollars a day? To Congolese women who are systematically raped? To Syrians who fled the war to neighboring countries? To Africans landing in rickety boats on the Italian island of Lampedusa? How can we afford that? We can’t. So if we have to separate ‘’them’’ from ‘’us’’, by what standard should ‘’they’’ respect ‘’us’’? This would lead to Hobbes infamous ‘’bellum omnium contra omnes’’, a war of all against all. The problem with humans is that we have become a plague in many places and in the way we have organized the world economy, a worldwide plague, deteriorating the habitat we live in, without the option to move on. So what might be an obvious set of values when talking about each individual, might not work at all when we are talking about multitudes fighting for diminishing space and resources. We know how our values cave in when we are at war. Expect to glide towards this new norm, because the fossil fuel economy is coming to an end and resources will get scarcer and scarcer. But once the great storm has died down, we will think of a new declaration, a declaration of surrender to our planet and a declaration of human duties towards nature and people.

 

Insert

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Just one desperate city: Quetta

 

Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world with about 184 million people as of june 2013. The country grows with around ten thousand people a day. The ecological deterioration of the country has been staggering. In 1947, when the country became independent, forty percent of the country was covered with forests, today it might be as little as five percent. There are about 130 million cows, buffalo’s, camels, goats and sheep in the country, with the number of goats increasing fastest as they can forage on increasingly meagre vegetation. One of its largest cities, Quetta, the capital of the western province of Baluchistan, harbors probably a million Afghani refugees and a total of three million people although the official census is 900.000 inhabitants. Situated in a semi-arid climate zone, the city receives little rain and most water is now pumped up from fossil aquifers that are quickly depleted. Well depth has gone from 10-20 meters to about 300 meters and according to some scientists, the city might run out of water during the next hot season with temperatures in the forty degree Celsius range. A ‘’tanker mafia’’ is selling water at racketeering prices. If the situation perpetuates, the country will see a large movement of ecological refugees towards the larger cities like Karachi and Peshawar, seeing inadequate infrastructure there under more pressure. Religious and ethnic tensions are sharply on the increase and a large number of suicide bombers detonated their devilish devices in the last few years.

 

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We could have, if we, well in time, maybe a generation ago, had been able to foresee the immense storm that is about to whip us and would have done everything in our power to prevent that. Rajiv Gandhi wouldn’t have been scolded for trading sterilization for a portable radio, the pope would have had to promote condoms, one child per family and homosexuality. All the recommendations of the limits of growth of the Club of Rome in 1972 would have had to be implemented then and there without delay, hitting the brakes at once and as the highest priority all this and more would have been required for us not to stare into the abyss.

 

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said: ‘’there is enough in this world for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed’’, was when the planet had a population of about two billion. But now, some eighty years later, it might not hold true anymore for a population that has crossed seven million and is entangled in an intricate web of global relations, based on exploitation of all possible resources, polluting its water, land and air and warming up its environment. Yes, one day maybe a sustainable, peaceful society will come to be, but not after the current one has imploded large scale, taking with it hundreds of millions of people, destroying enormous industries, cities and states. The wind has been sown, the whirlwind will be reaped. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

 

BREAKFAST AND A STROLL IN THE PARK

 

The doorbell rings and shakes me out of my mad hallucinations. It’s the home delivery guy, bringing freshly baked bread, freshly pressed orange juice, some lovely Dutch old cheese, and butter with a pinch of salt immaculately packed in a beautiful golden rapper. Bulgarian yoghurt and fresh raspberries, sliced mango and prosciutto. What golden age, what richness he brings me in the morning, ordered yesterday night over the internet and forgotten all about it. I just have to punch in a few numbers on a small machine, while entering my bank card and this lovely food has changed owner. A cash tip for him of course. Such a sweet, open, innocent young man. He is happy by nature, as I should be about the sunny morning that is warming up quickly. Time to make breakfast at the balcony. My apartment is at a very curious location. At the front one of Amsterdam’s largest arteries feeds cars, trams and many more bicycles into the center, while at the back it is almost a rural scene as beautiful nineteen century horse stables are kept for a monumental riding school where big stallions whinny restlessly and sometimes kick their boxes with their hooves because they want to go out to the Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s most famous city park which this morning will fill up with moms and strollers, joggers, lovers and old people feeding bread to the ducks. The stables smell of hay and horse dung all the way to my balcony. The high poplar trees with fresh green leaves on them, wave invitingly to me from behind the old houses that line the park. A delicious breakfast and then off to the park. Such a perfect day for a stroll. I have to clear my mind of the maelstrom that is trying to suck me into the deep, dark, lethal waters of my fears.

 

The taste of freshly baked bread, soft butter and savory old cheese, whisked away with a gulp of fresh orange juice and a sip of my second cup of Nesspresso, almost brings euphoria. I put up the Jupiter symphony from Mozart, the last he composed in the glorious, hot and dry summer of 1788, turning out a meagerly crop of wheat, however. It was the year before the French chopped off the surprised heads of their king and queen and storming into the revolution, democracy and the industrial revolution on the horizon. Never was a symphony so grand, so gloriously composed. Woody Allen called it the proof that God existed! I realized there were no cakes for my sumptuous breakfast, but the taste of bursting raspberries mixed with Bulgarian yoghurt in my mouth were fair compensation for the omission.

 

The exalted song of a rare lark singing from a tree near my balcony made me turn off Mozart. A weird encounter, not only had their populations decreased substantially, but they were no city dwellers, they loved the shrubs flanking fields of wheat, sunflowers or clover. Why would this beautiful soprano choose this as his stage?

 

Go, go, go, outside, such a beautiful day. All sorrows seem to melt before the rays of the sun, which was warming the day rapidly. Out of the door and into the street. The world takes on such a different personality when the sun is out on one of the first warm days in a European city. It’s not just the flowers that burst open in a matter of days, the people are flowering too. Especially after this harsh winter with too much snow and a Siberian coldwave that kept on blowing in delaying spring for over a month. A year ago April was the hottest ever recorded, this was one of the coldest.

 

It is a short walk before you can enter the city park through one of the forged iron gates. In front of me thousands of daffodils blossom on a tapestry of green grass. On the other side of the shallow water the statue of the 17th century Dutch master poet Joost van den Vondel majestically stands with the old writer sitting in thought, just at the point of putting a thought on his marble tablet. Thoughts, thoughts are the one great omission in modern science. Our perception and our thoughts on our perceptions are the tools that have created our modern world with its satellite, internet, and huge ships bringing oil from far to fuel the furnaces of our economy. The raspberries I was eating this morning could have grown in a greenhouse, heated by the natural gas pumped up from great depths thousands of kilometers away on the Russian tundra’s. All of this great interwoven modern reality was conjured up by thousands of perceptive, creative human beings who have been observing, thinking, inventing and changing their world. And yet, the nature of thought seems to elude everyone. They happen to us all the time, somehow born from by experiences, memories and emotions. Thoughts are escaping our mind all the time shaping our actions and interactions. And yet we do not know what thoughts are. The one thing that changed the face of our planet has escaped our observation. First these thoughts are made into words, these all powerful symbols that have given us such grasp of our reality, or so we think. So our thoughts, emotions and perceptions together form our reality, which is one reality as we are one person. Changes to our reality are possible, like the first clouds that form before the sun right now which change the character of the park within seconds, covering large parts with its shadows. The wind chills instantly. But I know the park will not change too much, it is spring time and the sun is out. The daffodils are blooming and so are the first tulips. There will be no snow here today, or hail ripping up the delicate flower petals. There will be no sudden storm powerful enough to break the trunk of the old trees lining the park. My thoughts protect my reality and although in the back of my head I am aware of possible dangers, like a rash bicycle rider who could hit me or a pickpocket who could snatch some valuables, or an aggressive madman who did not take his medicines this morning, I feel safe in the park and a smile comes to my face as I see two young kids tenderly playing with each other. A poem comes back to me:

 

A Song On the End of the World, Czeslaw Milosz

 

On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

Happy porpoises jump in the sea,

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

 

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.

 

And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

 

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet

Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:

No other end of the world will there be, no other end of the world will there be.

 

Jesus, will this nonsense not leave my head? All the time I see danger popping up where there is none? The madman am I, so why should you listen, why should I listen to myself?

 

Well, let me throw in the larger part of an article in the Guardian on the 2nd of May this year by Nafeez Ahmed:

 

White House warned on imminent Arctic ice death spiral

 

National security officials worried by rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice overlook threat of permanent global food shortages. The melting of sea ice in the Arctic has caught the eye of the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon. Senior US government officials are to be briefed at the White House this week on the danger of an ice-free Arctic in the summer within two years.

The meeting is bringing together NASA’s acting chief scientist, Gale Allen, the director of the US National Science Foundation, Cora Marett, as well as representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

This is the latest indication that US officials are increasingly concerned about the international and domestic security implications of climate change.

 

Senior scientists advising the US government at the meeting include 10 Arctic specialists, including marine scientist Prof Carlos Duarte, director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. In early April, Duarte warned that the Arctic summer sea ice was melting at a rate faster than predicted by conventional climate models, and could be largely ice free for the first time as early as 2015 – rather than toward the end of the century, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007.

He said: “The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic greenhouse gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.”

Duarte is lead author of a paper published last year in Nature Climate Change documenting how “tipping elements” in the Arctic ecosystems leading to “abrupt changes” that would dramatically impact the global weather system had “already started up”. Duarte and his team concluded: “We are facing the first clear evidence of dangerous climate change.”

 

New research suggests that the Arctic summer sea ice loss is linked to extreme weather. Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis points to the phenomenon of “Arctic amplification”, where:

“The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid warming of the Far North are altering the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. Scientists are now just beginning to understand how these profound shifts may be increasing the likelihood of more persistent and extreme weather.”

Extreme weather events over the last few years apparently driven by the accelerating Arctic melt process – including unprecedented heat waves and droughts in the US and Russia, along with snowstorms and cold weather in northern Europe – have undermined harvests, dramatically impacting global food production and contributing to civil unrest.

 

US national security officials have taken an increasing interest in the destabilizing impact of climate change. In February this year, the US Department of Defense (DOD) released its new Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, which noted that global warming will have:

“… significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water.”

The effects of climate change may:

“Act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world… [and] may also lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response, both within the United States and overseas … DOD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities, infrastructure, training and testing activities, and military capabilities.”

“The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in the US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.”

 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Roller skaters pass me with dizzying speed and once again my mood turns and my stomach churns. It’s not me that is mad, I do not have a depression, and I love life, in fact I am having a lot of fun, loving a lot of people and doing a lot of crazy things. I am just starting to feel these outer bands of that storm that will crush so many of us, so many…

 

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”

 

― Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

 

I will be ok, so will be most of my friends. Born in a rich country with enough reserves to endure a life more simple. Maybe the luxuries of travel and sliced mango will disappear, but a simple meaningful existence is still in the cards. Will we be ok? In a world full of tragedy, where only islands of hope will exist? Did dignity die before a Somalian mother died under a thorn bush, her last born dead weeks ago, famished from suckling at withered breasts? Her death did not touch my dignity because she was alone, outside my vision, she died quietly, unobtrusively, like the women that stitched my fashionable pants in a sweatshop outside Dhaka for a dollar or two a day. A concrete roof needed to collapse on hundreds of them before the indignity of the situation came to light. Now the situation is clamoring for attention and the world, in shame, is demanding improved working conditions. The concrete fell because of the immense vibrations of the generators downed the badly constructed building because there was a black out once again and our pants do not get stitched without electricity, and they do not get stitched cheaply without the slave labor by people forced from their land to the sweatshops because they have come for generations from families of ten, twelve children, so that the agricultural and arable land available has diminished to six to an acre or around six hundred square meter per person.

 

No one is to blame, these are just the forces of nature working to rebalance an unbalanced situation. Surely the owner of the building was an unscrupulous crook as were the civil servants who got bribed to look the other way, but hey, with so many people living in such a cramped overcrowded place, it is a war of all against all with the stronger males protecting their off spring better than the weaker males and surely than the frail women that died between the concrete slabs. The garment manufacturers have a powerful sway over politics as the garment industry contributes three quarters of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange earnings. Oh, and of course the owner of the collapsed building, Mohammed Rana, is a member of the ruling AL party. Do you really think the country will start to crack down on violations of construction, labor and safety laws and regulation, just because a thousand expendable poor died in that rubble that day? Get out of here, it’s not going to happen. Mohammed Rana will get convicted, he will get a life sentence and within a year, max two, he will be back in his comfortable villa planning new garment factories under new licenses. These workers can be replaced a thousand time without depleting the lake of the unemployed They are exploitable and expendable. There are many scarcities in Bangladesh, but poor people desperate for work is not one of them.

 

When society unravels slowly due to overpopulation, this is what happens. By the way, did you know that more than half the population of Bangladesh drinks drinking water poisoned with arsenic, which accounts for twenty percent of the country’s deaths? And by the way, did you know that Egyptians have a third less land for crops per person than their Bangladeshi brothers and sisters? With increased salinization, desertification and urban sprawl to boot. For Bangladesh and Egypt we have to fear the worst. Technically it is possible to feed their people on the land they have, with improved water management, crop rotation and smart technology deciding on what to plant and when, top soil erosion programs, tree planting programs against desertification, technically it is all possible and Egypt, remarkably manages to grow half its wheat itself. The problem is not that we cannot produce enough food on this planet to feed everybody and God forbid up to ten billion people. The point is that what is technically feasible will still not be implemented because of economic, logistic and social constraints. The Egyptian harvest this year will suffer under a lack of diesel available to farmers due to the fact that Egypt is broke and cannot afford the subsidies on fuel anymore. So the pumps that were pumping the water through the irrigation channels, could not work in many places, stalling the growth of the crops. The unrest under populations is increasing because life is getting too tough and that feeds into an accelerating downward spiral.

 

ANOTHER FLIGHT

 

The storm that is approaching is a monster, a many headed monster that will bring plagues that will pale the plagues of Exodus. God, I am beginning to sound like a weird prophet, you’d think a beard would fit me. It is time to leave the park to the chatter of the Indian ring-necked parakeets that are flying in flocks over my head. This exotic species is doing pretty good in its new European home.

 

I walk back in silence to my apartment, not very interested anymore in my surroundings that have taken on a shade of the unreal. Just by observing, looking, listening, reading this ominous feeling has crept inside of me, stronger year after year. The first time I was really upset about this transformation that is happening, was some fourteen years ago, when I was on a plane coming back from India for the umphtiest time. It was September of 1999 and the monsoon clouds over Delhi were immensely impressive when our little insect of a plane (a Boeing 747) was navigating its way in between the towering cumulus clouds that had shot up to eight miles high or so. Castles in the skies they were, boiling with energy, thunder, lighting, hail and wind, ice and fire. Shiva was dancing his dance of creation and destruction right outside my Plexiglas window. I had seen it many times and although as ever impressive, it did not bother me too much. But how strange it was when a couple of hours later, as I was nearing the airport of Amsterdam, the same bold, miles high cumulus clouds I had seen over Delhi were there. The monsoon had arrived in Europe! Later I told many friends, but they were not sure what to do with my strange story. There and then I saw for the first time weather that was completely out of place, clouds that did not belong there, that belonged to the tropics. My reality was split open and a strange suspicion was entering it. I have always been a bit of the worrying kind, taking after my father. But at the same time I also inherited his perceptiveness, seeing more than most. And these clouds did not belong there, I am telling you. It seemed I was the only one to notice.

 

Is this the old story of the boiled frogs? If you put them in water and heat it fast, they will jump out of course. But if you heat the water very, very slowly they apparently do not perceive the change and slowly gets boiled to death. Although the outcome of these experiments have been challenged, the metaphor somehow applies to humans in that we do not perceive the changes that are taking place around us, because they are too subtle, to slow to make us act. For only acting could have saved us, although we obviously have no option of jumping out of the heated pan. But the storm is approaching faster than all but a few realize and although we will find a way to survive these events it is going to be very, very nasty and only after a long, long time will we be able to focus on a more stable future on this planet with a lot less of us. You have heard this story before, so why aren’t you afraid? Thousands of scientists are screaming it and yet you do not listen? Because it is not happening? Or because the predictions are that this will happen decades from now? It has already started.

 

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

― Arthur Schopenhauer

 

Why don’t we see it coming? Because we don’t want it? Because it cannot be solved? Because it does not fit in with our world view where humans and especially Americans will find a solution to everything? But maybe Americans are part of the problem. Such hubris, such immense belief in science, technology, capitalism, the functioning market and the almighty dollar that all put together can solve all problems of mankind. The disdain of the rich and powerful for people who cannot seem to solve their problems is awesome and maybe they have lost the ability to understand that all humans are simple, fragile life forms, completely embedded in and dependent on nature, around for a couple of decades if they are lucky, after which they – having procreated or not – wither and die like leafs falling from an autumn tree if they are not struck down earlier by a more violent event, like a viral disease, a homicide, a flash flood or a car accident.

 

Is our story of developing the sciences, of the industrial revolution, not the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice who learns all the tricks in the book of the wise old magician but unleashes their power without the wisdom needed to see our limitations and the dangers of the fires we have been playing with? Man has conquered continents, cured lethal diseases, learned how to fly and even how to step out of our planet into the universe. We are changing organisms to our liking, invent crops that give enormous harvests and mapping our genomes. We are at the threshold of the age of genetic engineering and nano-technology. We have created enormous cities with millions of habitants that get fed rich food from the hinterland without a hick up, where people play and love and fill cinemas, concert halls and theaters with fans of our multifaceted culture. Enormous beehives that produce heat and waste and yet function as a magnet for more humans. Long gone are the days of humility where humans were kept in check by the Gods of old, by Shiva, Thor, Osiris and Ra, by Pacha Makaq, the Jagganath, Quetzalcoalt, Yemanja and Ashur, by Jaweh and more recently by Allah. But as Adam ate his apple and Pandora opened her box, slowly humans started to discover how to manipulate its surroundings more and more until plants and animals bowed to its needs and energy was harnessed into machines and diseases, like the plague – that had decimated humans just centuries ago – were driven out. And I am happy for flying around the world and eating strawberries in January and Shitake mushrooms from Japan. I am happy for wearing cotton clothes finer than the emperor of Rome ever did and taking doxycycline against an intestinal infection. I would die if I could not chat over Skype with my friend in Thailand or wouldn’t be able to google just about anything. Google, Google, Google is the one God that I embrace without a doubt. He who gives me access to all human knowledge, he who answers all my questions, he who seems to operate as the new brain of the planet itself. Google. But Google does not reveal anything by itself, you have to ask the oracle and so many answers will come, smart ones and dumb ones. True ones and false ones, so which of them can we trust? Here is one:

 

4 May 2013: Professor Stephen Hawkin:

 

Mankind must move to outer space within a century. The human race must look to outer space within the next century or it will become extinct, Professor Stephen Hawking has warned.

 

What to think of that? Why would he say that, why today?

 

The strange thing with impending disaster is that all that you know has to be rethought. You sometimes hear from someone who almost drowned that they saw their whole life unroll in front of their minds eye. Maybe that is because someone like that is looking through all he knows to look for an answer. If global warming is leading to such weird weather events that, within a few years the global food supply will not be sufficient to support everybody on this planet, will we be able to muster the strength to apply technology to such a magnitude that we are able to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at a rate faster than we spew it out into it? Since the adoption of the Kyoto protocol in 1997 the yearly annual output has increased by forty percent and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by more than ten percent from 360 parts per million to 400 ppm. Rather than CO2 levels diminishing, on the contrary, the levels of this greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere are increasing, and at an accelerating rate. Fifty years ago, during the 1960s, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere rose at a rate of one part per million per year.  In the decade from 2000 to 2010, with steps intended to reduce CO2 emissions well underway, the average annual increase was twice the level of fifty years previously at two parts per million per year. In 2011 this increased with 2.7 ppm which is faster than worst-case scenarios that climate scientists used in their most recent projections. 2012 gave a more benign growth and the greenhouse gas emissions, while still at a new global record of 31.6 gigaton according to the IEA, the growth acceleration stopped, with the USA and the European Union decreasing its emissions and China increasing less than it did. However, the current level of emissions alone is large enough to put us on four degree temperature increase, enough to change the planet as we know it. So we have to get a whole lot of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere if we want to stop this runaway train from increasing speed as it is definitely going downhill. Even if we stopped all our emissions today, the temperature rise would probably not stop for at least another fifty years, at least doubling the increase since pre-industrial levels due to momentum from previous emissions. So if this means that we cannot stop our most urgent problem, which is accelerating extreme weather events due to global warming, what about overpopulation, the financial system that has lent money based on evaporating asset prices, the degradation of our environment in general with ‘’smallish problems’’ like the decline in oil production, the collapse of fish and bee populations, the shrinking fresh water supplies.

 

Listen, don’t take my word for it. This is from the USAID’s latest 2013 Water Strategy paper:

‘’Projections are that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population could be living in severe water stress conditions. This stress adversely affects individuals, communities, economies, and ecosystems around the world, especially in developing countries. Ensuring the availability of safe water to sustain natural systems and human life is integral to the success of the development objectives, foreign policy goals, and national security interests of the United States.’’

 

They project a possible doubling of the amount of people living in severe water stress conditions within a bit more than a decade and then they roll up their sleeves and get to work. It is admirable, but a bit silly to think that just this aspect alone of the vital problems besieging humanity, is manageable. It probably wouldn’t be manageable if it was the only problem we had to deal with.

 

Just wait and see, the world economy is not recovering at all, no solutions have been found and it is probably about to collapse, taking with it in its fall a lot of things we have taken for granted as well as hundreds of millions of lives.

 

Insert

 

WHAT ABOUT THE BEES?

 

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

― Albert Einstein

 

In this terrible book talking about all the things that are going wrong, we only sideways mentioned another curious challenge to our life on this planet. It is about the catastrophic decline in honeybees both in the USA and Europe, with reports of losing more than half of these incredibly useful little insects. A large part of our food and fruits depend on the pollination by bees and they are in a nose dive decline over the past ten years in a syndrome called ‘’bee colony collapse disorder’’. In fact eighty percent of all plant species would disappear without pollination by bees. Bees have been suffering from a whole list of problems, including parasitic mites and other diseases, killing billions of the tiny creatures. Researchers have pointed the finger to some specific pesticide which have undermined the resilience of these creatures which are so important for our survival. What is happening to our bees is one of the many canaries in the coal mine and a very crucial one at that, because, just by itself, the disappearance of the little buzzers could send the world population in a food crisis of major proportions.

 

————————————————————————————————————————————-

 

 

 

 

I recently was on the Amazon River with my foster son Daniel, taking a local boat for a day or two from Leticia in Colombia to Tefe in the Amazonian part of Brazil. The river was impressive, the shores impressively empty of human habitation and therefore somewhat boring after a while. The endless jungle forests on both sides once triggering the remark of my best friend that he did not understand what all the fuzz was about and that there was still enough room for harvesting wood here. Anyway, while the rains were pouring like there was no tomorrow, the locals told me about the great drought of 2010 when in some places the water was fifteen meters lower than during the rainy season of that year. This place really is extreme because a few days later, when we were in the Mamiraua reserve, in one night with the most stupendous rain and thunder I have ever encountered in my life, the water in the river was up next morning by more than half a meter. Incidentally, two of the flag species of this flooded forest, the Amazonian manatee and the pink river dolphin are on their way out. The manatee has not been seen for two years and the number of dolphins have been halved in a matter of years, the reason being that they are easy to catch and when chopped into pieces and put in a crate, submerged in the river water, the piraiba, a large catfish, comes and preys on the animal’s parts. In a matter of days they haul up the crate with more than a ton of fish in it, ready to be exported to Colombia, where it is considered a delicacy and has been largely hunted to extinction.

 

But back to the largest rainforest on Earth, which in a good year absorbs one and a half gigaton of carbon dioxide, but during years of drought does the opposite, due to trees dying off. In 2005 two million of the roughly seven million square kilometer of Amazon forest was going through a severe drought, which triggered an estimated carbon release of five gigaton in the five years after it. This drought was thought to be a one in a hundred year event, when in 2010 an area of three million square km was faced with a more intense drought with the after effects probably producing as much as eight gigaton of carbon dioxide released into the air over the years following that drought.

 

I have to think of our marvelous guide, Paulo, who took us in a canoe into the flooded forest where we saw lots of monkeys, alligators, huge spiders, beautifully green iguanas and birds of all kinds. At one point we heard a fierce snapping sound and our guide started to row like his life depended on it. Then he halted and made us look to the left of us, where a forty meter high forest giant came, first swaying and then crashing down to the flooded earth not too far from us.  Luckily the waves were largely absorbed by the vegetation or else we would have had to swim in these alligator infested waters. I congratulated him being so observant and realizing a tree was about to fall from the snapping sound we heard. ‘’You must have come across this before’’. ‘’No’’, was his answer, ‘’this is the first time I encountered this, I knew the sound from trees being felled by humans, not dying’’. We had been witnessing a pretty rare moment, the sudden death of a tree that might have been there for up to three hundred years!

 

So what does this mean that we have had two major droughts in the Amazon in as little as a decade? Some climate scientist spoke of a possible correlation between the relatively warm waters of the Atlantic in both years, but hey, it could have been a mere incident. Time will only tell. But it is, together with a lot of other phenomena, a possible feedback loop that will trigger an exponential increase of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Many of these phenomena have been mentioned, like the additional forest fires triggered by higher temperatures, releasing more carbon dioxide into the air. Of course it is likely that other effects might serve as a break on the warming of the planet, like additional plant growth due to the higher levels of carbon dioxide, setting off part of what is happening or the increased cloud cover because the atmosphere carries more and more vapor. Did you know that photosynthesis drops off steadily after 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) and stops completely at around 40 degrees Celsius (104 F)? Effects that have been noticed are the thawing of large tracts of permafrost in western Russia (totaling an area of one and a half times Texas) which could release large amounts of methane kept locked in its frozen peat. Methane is a gas that, though staying much shorter in the atmosphere, has a warming effect twenty times that of carbon dioxide. And then there is the ice albedo effect, which is a very simple mechanism: ice and snow are whiter than water or ground and therefore reflect sunlight better. The melting of ice and snow increases the temperature of the newly uncovered land or water, therefore triggering an exponential melting to it has all melted. Being a fan of cool cocktails in the tropics, I know all too well what happens if the last ice cube in your caipirinha melts. Once that is gone, you’d better drink your drink fast or it will no longer fit for consumption. The same probably goes for the arctic sea ice. Once it is gone, the water under it will no longer be kept near zero degrees and future ice will take much longer to form. Might this effect stall the global heating of the atmosphere? Are the oceans and the melting ice absorbing the increasing heat? Anyway, the melting might already be impacting the summers and winters in the northern hemisphere.

 

Ok, so there are a lot of risks, quite often able to reinforce each other or even get to trigger exponential or runaway effects, which trigger processes that are self-perpetuating, feeding on themselves. Let’s try to get a bit less nervous and a bit more organized.

So firstly I worry about the effects of climate change NOW, not a decade away. It is already happening now, under our noses even within the attention span of politicians. Although the ongoing increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is a great problem, it is a problem further away. We are already suffering the effects of what we have put in in the past. If we stopped all coal fired power plants tomorrow, all but the necessary movements of cars and all started to plant ten trees per day per person worldwide, then maybe, maybe we would be able to slow down this monster and stop it at some point in the future. But that is not going to happen and the costs to slow down this monster is increasing by the day.

 

It is time to pack my bags, a routine matter for me as I have gotten accustomed to living in different places. My flight leaves in three hours. France Meteo is predicting the gloomiest and coldest summer in two hundred years. Funny, getting that message on such a lovely spring day and at the same time it feels timely that I jump on a plane to Brazil.

 

It was 1816, The Year Without Summer, when crops failed caused by one of the largest eruption in the history of humanity. On the far away island of  Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, in what is now Indonesia, the year before that caused a global cooling, failed crops and thousands of deaths around the world and particularly observed in Europe. I wonder what made France Meteo come to that conclusion with no major volcano eruption anywhere. But from what I hear there is increased volcanic activity along the Ring of Fire, the great band of volcanoes on the Pacific ring, that holds more than four hundred fire spewing mountains and is prone to many earthquakes from Japan to Indonesia to Chili to California. Funny how I am worried sick about the effects of global warming when a few volcanoes can reverse the whole picture tomorrow. Oh, by the way, lots of floods in Europe. Heavy rainfall swelled already full rivers in southern and eastern Germany on Saturday, prompting authorities to reinforce flood defenses after at least two people drowned in recent days. Water levels on the Rhine, Danube and Neckar rivers have risen steadily, with many smaller streams also threatening to break their banks. In some places they broke 16th century records. Meteorologists predicted further downpours in the coming days, marking one of the wettest starts to the summer on record. Authorities in the Bavarian city of Passau are preparing for a surge of water on the Danube, with waters expected to reach twice their normal level by Monday. Similar measures are taken in the Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland also were reinforcing defenses along rivers there. Prague and Budapest escaped the full brunt of the flood. I was in Prague just a few weeks ago, lovely weather, blossoming fruit trees, a city full of happy tourists. The old city has been flooded time and again throughout the ages. I guess the old Karluv Most (the Charles Bridge) will just sigh and wait till the waters recede. The first stone was laid by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV himself in 1357. Protected by the statues of thirty saints, the bridge has only been damaged severely by floods in its long history. It will hold the next flood.

 

The weird thing is that I have been living a sheltered life despite touring the globe and meeting a lot of poor people in the most unhospitable of places. I looked in the barrel of a gun of crazy African soldiers and cynical illegals from the Maghreb. Never wondered if I was in danger when I, a drunk tourist coming out of a club, was followed by a bunch of gypsies at three in the morning on a hot summer’s night in Moscow. I entered India overland through the Punjab when flights were suspended due to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. How lucky am I to never have a car crash while sitting shot gun on some of the worst roads in the world, negotiated by kamikazes, like the Nairobi-Mombasa road or the one between Delhi and Jaipur when it was still double lane. That road was so dangerous that if a truck would get hit, the remains would disappear completely within twenty four hours, dismantled by specialist scavengers hiding in the scrubs along the way. Maybe danger is overblown. Even in wars not more than a percent or so of the population dies. So what is all the fuzz about? But if everybody agrees that the world population must stop growing at some unknown, unsustainable level, why does it have to be at nine or sixteen billion or a thousand billion people before the population growth is stopped by the sheer limitations of food and water? Why could it not be now? It took more than a hundred thousand years for humans to get to one billion. At the time of Rome’s zenith we were with maybe a hundred million, with the majority on the banks of the river Ganges and the Yangtze. When I was born, there were about 2.5 billion and the last billion people took just twelve years to hatch. Surely this is sounds like a plague, completely unsustainable, no? In terms of biomass of course it is very little. Let’s say the average human weighs 50 kg, which would put our total weight at about 350 million tons or roughly a tenth of all oil we produce on a yearly basis. Some biologists put the biomass of only ants and termites at around six times that of humans and we might have as much as a billion insects per person flying and crawling around our planet. So overpopulation seems very much in the eye of the beholder, or is it?

 

In his famous book, ‘’How many People can the Earth support’’, the American mathematical biologist coined the concept of ‘’ecological footprint’’. Wikipedia describes it as ‘’the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate associated waste. Using this assessment, it is possible to estimate how much of the Earth (or how many planet Earths) it would take to support humanity if everybody followed a given lifestyle.’’ For 2007, humanity’s total ecological footprint was estimated at one and a half planet Earths; that is, humanity uses ecological services 1.5 times as quickly as Earth can renew them. The ecological footprint is recalculated on a yearly basis. Currently humans have about 1.8 hectares of land and sea per person to sustain themselves with enough food, clothing, shelter, medicines, building material, fresh air, clean water. The minimum necessary is around two hectares per person so we are getting pretty close to being fully booked according to this measurement. Mind you, given the lifestyles of Americans, who’s footprint is around ten hectares, we would need five Earths to sustain ourselves, while Afghanis only need about a half hectare.

 

I am packing my Armani underwear, which, despite its XL size will probably get nicked in Brazil by my younger black ghetto friends as it is vital for one’s position in those environments to show a rim of underwear above your jeans with critical words like: Armani, Tommy Hilfiger or Diesel to impress fellow citizens and especially the girls. In the last few years I have slowly built up a life in Brazil, next to my job in Switzerland, using every occasion to stay there for a few weeks.

 

The doorbell rings, my taxi is waiting. My suitcase full of strange things like ten roles of dirt bags that are twenty times more expensive in Brazil, sambal, a spicy chili paste from Indonesia and seeds for my favorite vegetable in the world, the Thai Pak Bun, two pounds of Old Amsterdam Dutch cheese, four bottles of perfume and about ten t-shirts in sizes too small for my somewhat extended belly, that were ordered by my friends. I am always a bit worried that one day I have to explain this to the custom officers in Rio de Janeiro, where I will land about fourteen hours from now, but they never ever looked in one of my bags and technically only the cheese is probably a violation of regulations, which would most likely not wind me up in jail I guess. The ride to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport is smooth with few cars on the road and disciplined drivers doing eighty kilometers an hour. Bicycles are such a blessing for this city, which has avoided the worst of traffic jams because of those ingenious contraptions using human energy instead of fossil fuel. Business class check in, separate baggage check and passport control, a look at the Financial Times with a cracker with cream cheese and hey it is already five o clock, a small glass of port wine. First to board, comfortable seat, overpopulation seems very far away. Have you noticed how in just two decades (maybe since the fall of the Berlin Wall) priority treatment has become completely accepted in daily life? The plane takes off on time of course and I submit myself to a semi vegetative state I have gotten used to flying long haul. Films, music, relaxation, a snack and a snooze and before you know it we are over land again at the other side of the pond. My footprint, I am sure, exceeds that of the average American or even an oil gobbling Gulf Arab. I am definitely part of the problem. After a refreshing sleep, I open a window shutter and I look out of my window to see the coast of Brazil, with the long, white beaches of Fortaleza stretching out below me. What species we are. We fly a billion times a year on a plane. Tens of millions of us fly to the other side of our little planet to lie in sand and catch some sun and relaxation. A bit later I see Salvador de Bahia underneath me and my island. It is irritating I have to fly another two hours and then turn back this stretch. Changing planes in Rio is chaotic but reasonably fast. As usual customs is not at all interested in me, they do not even bother to look at me. The last two hours are on a smaller plane with cramped seats and noisy stewardesses that love to give us the flight instructions in Portuguese and incomprehensible English. I must have flown way in excess of a thousand times and my plane always landed safely even after getting hit by enormous air pockets and lightning, miserable snow blizzards, heavy fog and sudden gusts of wind. Even one emergency landing turned out to be a complete non-event, although landing in between a long line of fire trucks and ambulances is a bit out of the ordinary. The worst ever was in fact magnificent when a storm of eleven Beaufort was raging over Southern England and all landings on Heathrow were stopped for a while so the planes were commanded to fly circles in groups of twenty over the mighty British capital. It felt a bit like squadrons of Messerschmitts from the Luftwaffe waiting for attack all over again. The high winds had cleared the evening skies over London and the views of the brightly lit metropolis, home to some of the wealthiest and powerful people in the world, with the squadrons circling quietly overhead, were magnificent. After about an hour the winds died down enough to let everybody land again. Of course the mess at Heathrow’s terminal had a far greater impact on our journey. How magnificent have our safety standards become that it is virtually impossible dying on an airplane. We are so clever, so well organized. We do not crash anymore! Yet a few minutes without oxygen would be the end of me. Funny it never happened in the last fifty seven years, never had I found myself without air for more than a few minutes. Apparently, because I am still here. Isn’t life safe? It is amazing that I am alive, fragile as I am, as we are. Tired I am for sure. Another flight, a landing, a taxi. The tropical breeze is soothing. I will sleep in my small city apartment because crossing the Bay is out of the question this time at night. After ten thousand kilometers, the bottleneck is the last ten of them. Still, when I lay down in my bed, I am happy, drowsy and dream away. The world, me, we are at peace.

 

 

THE WINDS ARE PICKING UP

 

What I am saying is that we are already seeing the effects of the current levels working its way into decreased polar ice, warmer seas, and heat waves, accompanied by extreme weather events like floods, droughts, forest fires and pests. These variations are delivering stress on harvests, sometimes big measurable ones, having an effect on world market prices like the poor wheat harvests in Russia in 2010 and 2011 and the poor corn crop in the USA in 2012. But many times more local effects that stay outside counts. A hailstorm cutting up a hundred hectares of potatoes in Argentina, an overflowing river taking a few hundred acres of vegetables with it in a valley of the High Atlas in Morocco, caterpillars eating away at fruit trees in a French department, a field of manioc that withers because the irrigating well falls dry halfway their growth cycle; these things do not show up in the statistics, and yet they count, because these little hits are taken in in their thousands. Incidentally the inner city of Calgary in Alberta, Canada flooded today. I am not sure if it is the first time, but the rivers are breaking records. These small localized events, devastating for a couple of local farmers, seem like insignificant pinpricks, but they are on the increase everywhere and deliver local price shocks, like the tripling of tomato prices in the state of Sao Paulo in April of 2013 after devastating rains swept away a lot of crops. These micro events, together with the increasing headline hits to food production are still not enough to create a large food crisis, but they are the sand grains scraping a less and less oiled machine.

 

Of course uneven distribution and lack of money do affect a lot of people. One in seven people will go to bed hungry tonight. That is a lot less than twenty five years ago at least in percentage of the total, but since the financial crisis the situation has, at best, stayed the same. Most of these hungry people can be found in rural villages in Asia and Africa, living on marginal lands, prone to droughts or floods and with no reserves or alternative products for sale if something goes wrong with their crops. In bad years many migrate to cities in search of employment, winding up in the ever growing slums of big cities. Still, given no major disruptions, the problem of extreme poverty and hunger could be tackled by the world and it was well under way of doing so. Brazil managed to lift twenty five million people out of dire poverty and malnourishment just in a matter of decades. The world is rich enough to feed the whole of humanity. According to the FAO cereal production in 2013 is on track for a bumper harvest as long as the weather is behaving. So why should we worry? With all the increased techniques in drought resistant crops, better irrigation techniques, better weather forecasting, we will adapt to these problems. This spring in just over a week, US farmers with their large scale precision farming directing multiple driverless combines steered by computers and GPS, plowed, fertilized and sowed an area the size of Ireland and the Netherlands combined, using software to decide on action with regards to soil temperature and humidity. The process went on day and night and within a very short period the delay in the planting season due to an exceedingly cold spring, was overcome and the growing season on track. So, ending hunger and extreme poverty on a large scale should be within our grasp, the experts say.

 

But if food production is still ahead of the game how come prices of rice, wheat and other staples have more than doubled over a decade? Because our food production and transport is very energy intensive and oil prices have doubled in the course of ten years. Not only do we get the bill for depleting oil reserves, we also pay for already existing and increasing degradation of soil through desertification, salinization, erosion and mineral exhaustion and fertilizer has tripled in price. Meanwhile more and more corn and sugar cane are winding up in our petrol tanks to slow down the deteriorating oil production which is not keeping up with demand anymore since a couple of years and will decline roughly now, shale oil or no shale oil. And don’t forget that the Argentinian steaks that you buy in London have been fed on corn and soya, which was shipped from Brazil. That involves quite some movement before you chew on a piece of red beef and wash it down with a dark red merlot from Stellenbosch in South Africa.

 

Add to that the increased degradation of the world’s fresh water supplies, drying up wells and aquifers, rivers that are overexploited and polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste and ground water that gets infiltrated with seawater, and our soup gets spicier.

 

Overlay that with the overpopulation in the river delta’s and low lying areas of Africa and Asia. Top that with increased poverty of especially the hundreds of millions of poor people working small pieces of farmland and those living in the swelling slums of large cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Their health is deteriorating and managing their lives is more and more beyond their control despite their hard work, ingenious solutions and smart ways to make a buck here and there. Especially the food and energy inflation eats into their budget in dramatic ways, hitting them hard since 2007. Overlay that with more and more supply chain interruptions which, despite more and more built in redundancy, get hit by a strike and a flood and a storm. Whether it is hard disks from Bangkok which got flushed out by the immense floods of 2011, the cokes from Australian mines needed to make the worlds steel that got interrupted by the floods over there in the same year or the lack of auto-parts after the devastating Japanese tsunami, all had large impacts on industries.

 

Overlay that with self-serving politicians and bureaucrats or just the ones who want to do well, but do not get the picture from endless reports and hobnobbing with the incredibly wealthy and conferencing in the rarified air of scenic castles and luxury beach resorts. The nastier ones get elected on promises they do not keep and lo and behold, you get a lot of angry, cynical young people who come to think of the world as evil and a place where you have to fight for your rights. Especially young males will start to look for alternatives in using their physical force and natural prowess to cut themselves a piece of the pie. The more educated ones take to the streets after a call to arms from Twitter and Facebook.

 

Add to that the decadence of an increasingly unequal world, with the rich, who somehow always know how to manipulate the system to their advantage and make their wealth sound reasonable and even honorable and desirable, especially through the billions of TV screens that seem to have nothing but attention for the rich and famous and our steamy, spicy soup is getting almost ready to be served.

 

Overlay that with increased social unrest because of unemployment of a whole new generation of Latinos and Blacks in the USA, youths in Southern Europe, Brazil, Indonesia and throughout the Middle East, where, cut back in food and fuel subsidies for vulnerable groups and the bygone hopes and dreams of youths to build a happy, stable life.

 

Add to that migration from areas that already have fallen apart with large exoduses as a result, places like some Sahelian countries, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia.

 

Top that with white robed men who blame everything on the West and have an interest in blowing up societies to establish a wholesome, virtuous Caliphate where people are humble and abide by divine law.

 

Now, sprinkle that with the most likely outcome of the current global financial crisis, which is a second, larger one, in which banks and currencies with fall apart, with bank runs (digitally and real) and cases of runaway inflation, large scale bankruptcies of governments, companies and persons and you are looking at complete mayhem. At best the rich world will be able to hang on to a period of stagnation which will slowly hollow out its resilience, its reserves, its hope and increase inequality to unsustainable levels, launching nationalist parties into power, releasing the frustration of the disenfranchised, demanding firm action and  protectionism.

 

This process of spiraling down is well underway, this is what is happening. All the smart tricks of government, scientists, entrepreneurs, all resourcefulness of the rich countries, all armies in the world, ready to take on natural disasters, will not be enough to prevent the global tapestry of human society to fall apart, first slowly and then accelerating, faster and faster. The decay will be uneven, holes will appear in some spots, while others patches are still bright and colorful. Robustly organized countries in North America, Western and Northern Europe and North East Asia will feel the brunt much less and much later than the countries that are on the edge of collapse already. But do not underestimate the effects of the change in climate in places like Europe, with more snow in winter and alternate wet and gloomy summer months versus exceedingly hot summer months, driving multiple problems of decreased harvests and economic interruption.

 

Russia and Canada might be able to handle what is coming, but it won’t be a walk in the park for them either as the changes will ask for large scale adaptation. The changes are partly positive as an immense increase of vegetation is taking place because of greening and thawing of larger parts of their arctic and boreal zones (an area the size of Australia, Brazil and China put together). This will also absorb CO2 newly stored in these enormous forests and tundra’s, which in itself slows down the warming of the planet. These countries also need to get used to alternate hot and cold summers, spring floods and increased forest fires, making food production increasingly unpredictable.

 

But the first and very vicious blows will be delivered to countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, Egypt, the Philippines and Nigeria, to mention the most important ones. Or should I mention Yemen, Myanmar, Haiti and the Sahelian countries like Niger and Mali, countries of secondary importance to the world, but obviously not to themselves. The USA will show much more vulnerability towards climate change with a significant increase in damage from blizzards, droughts, floods and storm systems, but with its wealth and resourcefulness it will also be able to respond more robustly towards the threats it is facing on its soil.

 

Let me repeat a simple message from a country so small, we can easily ignore it, the Marshall Islands

 

In a letter to the Washington Post the foreign minister of that former atoll paradise writes on 31 May 2013.

 

‘’…After a prolonged and unseasonable drought that began late last year, the severe lack of drinking water in our northern atolls led my government to declare a disaster area on May 7. This humanitarian crisis is climate-induced. About 6,000 people are affected by severe water shortages and are surviving on less than one liter of water per day. All of the affected communities have lost the staple crops that provide their daily food. My people are not only thirsty and hungry, they are also getting sick. The drying water wells are contaminated with bacteria and salt. Diarrhea, pink eye, flu and other drought-related diseases are on the rise, particularly among children, and we are on the brink of a much wider outbreak. With no significant rain forecast until at least July, the situation is likely to get worse.

 

Since January, my government has been working to relieve the crisis by shipping drinking water and basic supplies to the affected communities. Our very limited resources cannot sustain this effort.

 

We desperately need assistance from abroad. We are grateful for the generous help we have received thus far from the United States, Australia, the Republic of China (Taiwan), India, Israel, Japan, the Asian Development Bank and the New Zealand Red Cross, which have provided financial aid, reverse-osmosis filtration units and other emergency supplies. Two weeks ago, U.N. agencies began providing logistical support and humanitarian experts to assess the situation — but much more needs to be done.’’

 

Just six thousand people, peanuts. The world population increases with that amount in just under forty minutes. Surely someone can solve this. One air craft carrier can pick them up and ship them to… where?

 

Insert

 

WHAT ABOUT THE MOUNTAIN PINE BEETLE?

 

Imagine a little beetle, the size of a grain of rice, but black in color or brownish. And dangerous because it could increase climate change, believe it or not. We are talking about the little mountain pine beetle, an insect native to the forests of the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico up to Canada. The buggers eat themselves into the bark of grown pine trees till they are at the juicy inner layer of the bark protecting the wood. There they feed of it and lay eggs and soon the whole tree is infested. Their invasion kills the tree after a while and they move on. So what, would be a reasonable reaction, until you realize they have destroyed forest an area the size of England in the last decade. In Canada alone, the increase of the mountain pine beetle has killed 18 million hectares of pine wood in the last ten years or so. The warmer winters off late have triggered an explosion of these insects and they are now expanding to Alberta and have taken on pine species that have no natural defenses against them. When summer comes these dry dead forest are devoured by flames, leading to millions of tons of extra CO2 entering into the atmosphere. The current immense forest fires in Colorado, the largest in the state’s history are caused by the beetle in combination with the fiercest drought in living memory with record temperatures.  It is just one of nature’s imbalances with enormous consequences for the decades to come.

 

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A GAME OF DOMINO

 

Of course the people Marshall Islands will not create havoc for the world, neither will the inhabitants of Maldives, Kiribati, the Seychelles, Palau or other small island nations. Their misery will deepen and these islands will become uninhabited and then slowly disappear, mostly quietly. However that may not happen to much larger countries with hundreds of millions of people that are already sinking away in a situation of lawlessness and permanent civil war that can only be countered by measures so large the Marshall Plan would look like sparing a dime for a brother.

 

Let us take a look at the most important overpopulated, ecological and or socially unstable basket cases that are disintegrating before our eyes: Syria (21 million people), Iraq (33 million people), Egypt (84 million, 15th most populous country), Pakistan (184 million, 6th most populous country in the world after China, India, the USA, Indonesia and Brasil), Nigeria (170 million , 7th position), and Bangladesh (157 million, 8th position). These countries account for a bit less than ten percent of the world population. We could of course extend the list with even worse cases like Somalia, Yemen, Haiti, Zimbabwe and most Sahelian countries from the Southern Sudan and the Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic, Niger and Mali, which are in a death struggle by themselves. And lets not forget the struggles the Philippines are going through, that island nation with short of a hundred million inhabitants, battered by cyclones and volcanoes. But I have chosen this list of countries because of their deep roots and possible impact on the world as a whole.

 

 

Eden Revisited

 

The Gilgamesh epos tells of a great deluge in Mesopotamia, the place where the Garden of Eden was situated, a pre-agricultural paradise where man lived in innocence and without having to toil for food which was plentiful and a daily past time to find some.  Were it the rising seas after the last Ice Age that filled up the Persian Gulf? We don’t know. It must have been a lush delta where the Tigris and the Euphrates, helped by the melting of immense glaciers on the Turkish plateaus, meandered through what might have been the largest oasis in the world, full of fruit trees, wildlife and hunter-gatherer tribes. Somehow the great flood came and went and the first signs of early agriculture appear on the banks of these mighty rivers upstream. Man had lost his pristine innocence and started on a journey to conquer its food supply, rather that chasing after it.  Sedentary tribes built their mud huts along the two rivers and grains and fruits were harvested, beer and wine produced, animals kept for meat and milk and slowly larger places emerged leading to cities like Ur (now in Northern Syria) and Babylon (now in South East Iraq), where people could take up other trades because of a steady and reliable flow of food on markets. Priests and traders and architects, kings and soldiers appeared. The Neolithic revolution was well underway. Kingdoms and empires were forming, states with standing armies appeared, as they did in faraway deltas and on the shores of the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges and the Yangtze.

 

Fast forward around ten thousand years later. We are talking 2013, we are talking today. Damascus and Baghdad, two capitals of the ancient lands of Syria and Iraq are submerged in a civil war with hundreds of people dying in chaotic shootings, car bombs, executions by bullets and throats cut by knifes. Throughout all these millennia these things have happened, cities were sacked, burnt and looted. Vile crimes were committed against innocent women and children and yet the peoples of these lands always regained their peace, plowed their fields and herded their cattle, crafted their objects and their population grew. So this could just be another of these terrible episodes after which the flames of war will die down and the people will pick up their lives and a prosperous period will emerge once again. Or will they?

One thing that has been left out of this picture is the deterioration of the habitat of these people through a combination of depletion of water, forests and other natural resources combined with increasing temperatures and recurring droughts, the stress on these people has grown so high that they are dying. Iraq and Syria are dying.

Since 1900 Syria went through a total of seven droughts, six of them were one year droughts, a seventh one took two years. The whole society was geared towards surviving one year of drought and not much would happen apart from having a tough year. Then in 2006 a drought started that lasted for four years and it changed the country forever. Hundreds of thousands of small farmers suffered total crop failure. And the herders in the north east of the country lost virtually all their cattle. The drought drove more than two million people into extreme poverty, leading to a massive exodus from the country side into the cities. An estimated 1.5 million people migrated from the countries rich agricultural lands in the northeast and the pastures of the north east of the country to the big cities. Goat herders, farmers and farmhands filled the slums of Damascus and other cities, which were already suffering under an influx of as many as a million Iraqi refugees.  All of this happened before the Syrian revolt began in the rural farming town of Dara’a– a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought.

Under the Baath regime of Hafez al Assad and his son Bashar, the country had attained self-sufficiency in wheat production and became an exporter of cotton, but both productions relied heavily on unsustainable irrigation from wells as water from the Euphrates and its tributaries as well as smaller coastal rivers were not enough by far to keep up with production. Damming the rivers has led to some relief but the increased urbanization has been putting a lot of pressure on those water stocks as well. Forest cover in Syria is down from about ten percent of the country a century ago to two percent. Large tracts of land have been abandoned after depletion of well water. With the drought followed increased food prices, internal immigration and further depletion of renewable water sources. The stress on the local people has exploded into a civil war and it is hard to see how the area will be able to sustain a population of around 21 million in the decades to come. In fact Syria as a country is dying. It will fall apart no matter what the political constellation will be unless the world is prepared to support the disintegrating state with hundreds of billions of dollars for the coming decades, which will not happen as Syria is not the only one needing help. More and more will line up. The results will be clear: mass migration to surrounding countries, mass exploitation of desperate humans, increased criminality, collapse of society and ensuing suffering and death for millions for the foreseeable future. The area might realign along old ethnic, tribal and religious lines line Afghanistan en Yemen.

The Syrian civil war is therefore so dangerous, because it puts stress on all its neighbors. Iraq is already in a civil war. This of course was not triggered by ecological degradation as that country is largely reliant for food on import paid by oil revenues. Water resources are therefore relatively abundant, because no large quantities are necessary to sustain a large agricultural sector and water needs are mainly restricted to human consumption and industrial process.

The Lebanon runs a high risk of gliding back into a sectarian civil war and the stress on Jordan is increasing by the day as that small kingdom has to cope with too much influx of fleeing refugees. The powerful mix of the tension between arch enemies Israel and Iran with its Shia phalanxes in the Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria and Iraq and the sectarian war fare between Sunnis and Shiites underway has made the whole area into a powerful powder keg that will simply blow up soon, no matter what.

As I am not a scientist or a politician, I can put things more bluntly: to me the Syrian uprising is a direct consequence of an immense drought, related to climate change in a country managed by a thick headed, cruel and self-serving elite. It might be that a more intelligent and civilized government had been able to mitigate the effects of the drought, but I doubt that, short of the right investments in overhauling the whole water management system of the country in the decades preceding to the chaos, any other government could have saved the day.

Iraq today is a place of civil war, chaos, exhausted after wars, dictatorship and invasion. Three million Iraqis live outside the country because of the terrible situation the country is in and millions more live in slums where all dignity is gone. Just in the first half of 2013 more than two thousand people were killed in terrorist attacks. The incredible decision of the Americans and the British to invade that Iraq has caused a death toll of upwards of six hundred thousand and destabilized the country as well as its neighbor Syria. But what about power cuts and undrinkable tap water? What about the collapse of irrigation systems once delivering fruit and vegetables to Baghdad and other cities? The palm date production for example, is half what it was before the invasion, while the wheat and barley crop in the north of the country has diminished substantially during the years of drought until 2010. The environmental situation in Iraq seems less visible because of the immense oil wealth, making it possible for now to buy necessities from the proceeds of oil. Only about a third of all food eaten in the country, is produced there, the rest is imported. But the environmental situation is bad and worsening and at least a fifth of the population has problems feeding itself. The country has seen an enormous deterioration of its water supply. Hundreds of villages in northern Iraq have been abandoned in recent years after their wells dried up or turned out salty water. The reduced inflow of water from the Euphrates and the disastrous drying up of the delta marshes have more than halved the production of vegetables and fruits. Though the influx of water into the marsh lands since 2004 has improved the situation somewhat, restoration to its former glory is all but impossible. This country is out of control and falling apart, slowly being carved up between Sunni’s, Shia and Kurds. New local sheiks and warlords will fill the vacuum of the more and more powerless Bagdad government.

 

 

All The Pharaohs Have Left

 

On the other side of the Middle East lies that other ancient land where agriculture took hold in the soils of the shores of the Nile, that mighty river that fertilized its banks since time immemorial, when the yearly floods would deposit the rich clays from the highlands of Ethiopia. How we are all still to date mesmerized by the days of the pharaohs when pyramids were built to precision under a sky alive with gods which interacted with the people and brought them riches and plagues and wars and abundance. Thebes still reaches back into our common sub consciousness when you take in the spirit of the temple of Karnak. If you listen well you could still hear the singing of youth on the shore of the Nile millennia back while they were working the elaborate irrigation canals that would make for huge crops of barley and wheat, enough to celebrate the gods in great ceremonies with plenty beer and roast. Scribes would write up the events in honor of Orisis and Amon Ra. We are all familiar with the Biblical plagues that fell upon the Pharaonic lands of Thutmosis III, algae that turned the river Nile red, hail and thunder, boils and pests, locusts, dead livestock and first-borns. The Egyptians have been used to their share of natural trouble but its crops kept it a rich country for millennia in which culture thrived throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman times, the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Famines were no stranger to the land though and many a time the populace suffered greatly and died in their thousands when a rainy season in the highlands up river did not occur.

Long gone are those days. The Nile’s floods have been tamed for more than a hundred years and the Nile shores in Egypt are now home to almost all of its 84 million inhabitants, intensely farming the land with fertilizer and irrigation and the latest varieties of pest resistant, high yielding seeds. While the territory of Egypt amounts to one million square km, the arable land of the delta, inland oases and the river shores is less than three percent or something like three hundred square meter per Egyptian, if my calculator is right. Precious as it is, land is lost on a daily basis to urbanization, desertification and salinization both below the Aswan dam and through penetration of seawater in the Nile delta.

Still Egypt is the largest wheat producer of Africa and manages to grow half it needs, an impressive feat indeed. It even manages to export a lot of vegetables to the Middle East and Europe. Produce that get flown out by plane as long as oil remains affordable of course. I admire the indomitable spirit of the Egyptians, they are fun loving even under dire circumstances and because of their immense history always have a relaxed perspective of the challenges of the day. They are resourceful and come up with solutions for their more and more complicated lives every day. A friend of mine, who was making his money with tourism before the revolution brought it largely to a halt, when asked how he was surviving now, answered me smilingly that he was now ‘’watching his olives grow’’. Where the poor peddle small ware on the streets or collect rubbish to recycle, and the simple store owner works sixteen hours a day to feed his family, the well to do have long retreated to lush suburbs with gated communities, watched over, cleaned and groomed by an army of the dwellers of Cairo’s poor neighborhoods. Those who visit the Cairo chic Zamelek or the spacious suburb of Heliopolis must feel on a completely different planet than in Manshyet Nasser, a slum of about a million a few kilometers away. The grotesque villas of Heliopolis surrounded by high walls and beautiful palm trees would probably each cover an area where about a thousand people live without running water, electricity and sanitation in Manshyet Nasser or similar slums. In adjacent El Arafa, Cairo’s largest cemetery live another half a million or so people, and I am talking about the ones that are alive. It is estimated that almost half of the Egyptian population live in slum like surroundings and some two hundred or so a day join them from other parts of Egypt, together with the five hundred net increase of births over deaths.  Of course normal life has broken down for these people a long time ago and with everyday their fight, not just for food, but for a sliver of dignity is a battle they are losing against the elements. Food inflation and a lack of fuel are just two of their daily headaches, giving them no time or energy to think about more structural solutions to their problems like education for their children. The Egyptian pound lost a sixth of its value against the dollar in the first five months of 2013, which again will translate in higher energy and food costs, with core inflation running at a bit under nine percent as we speak.

In 2010 forty percent of the population lived on two dollars or less a day, feeding themselves in large part with subsidized bread. The country managed to grow about half its wheat itself, but for the other half it is dependent on imports mainly from Russia, France and the USA. In this situation a great number of shocks have deteriorated the situations the Egyptians are in, starting with events outside its border. Crucial tourism revenues started to fall as early as 2009 as a result of the global financial crisis. In 2010 the failed wheat harvest in Russia and the great drought in North East China triggered a rapid price increase for that crucial staple that is the mainstay of food for Egyptians, bread. Subsidies softened the immediate effect on its people somewhat but at the cost of a rapid decline of its foreign reserves and a large increase of its national dept. Every Egyptian government knows that a price increase of bread will trigger unrest if not an uprising that could sweep it away.

The uprising in January of 2011 that swept away the Mubarak regime was only partly triggered by unemployment and the rising cost of food. Tahrir Square in Cairo filled with youths who genuinely wanted a change of regime and the brutal reaction of the ancient regime, killing hundreds of the protesters, triggered a wave of indignation.  But the revolution not only ended a decaying, authoritarian regime, it also unsettled the economy in many ways. Tourism, one of the major foreign currency earners caved in almost completely and in the chaos that ensued during the Libyan uprising, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who were working in that country, fled home resulting in increasing joblessness and an enormous loss of revenue. Meanwhile the new Islamist government is slowly sinking in a morass of increasing economic and political problems partly of its own making, but in large part beyond its control. Squeezed between a rapidly increasing unemployment and falling revenues, the world’s largest importer of wheat simply cannot pay its bills for bread and fuel anymore. The farmers are complaining that they cannot get the diesel they need to irrigate their fields and estimates of the 2013 wheat crop by the government are wildly optimistic inviting a new round of civil unrest which will lead to a depression and an exodus of young Egyptians. Egypt is on a downward spiral that has been triggered by overpopulation. In a country where more than half the population is under 25 years of age, this downward spiral will certainly not go without a bang! Only if the Saudis pick up the tab of feeding Egypt’s poor for the foreseeable future at the cost of tens of billions of dollars, the country will not disintegrate into a failed state or an islamo-fascistoid dictatorship disciplining millions of young men to fight for a more powerful Egypt and taking down all dissent, with the Coptic minority in grave danger. Egypt’s young men could become the cannon fodder in a great Middle East war fought along the Shia-Sunni fault line. Another carnage thinkable would be a march on Israel to avenge the grievances of the Palestinians. Of course solutions can be thought on paper to get Egypt out of its predicament, but realistically this would require such a comprehensive improvement of its housing problems, water management, agricultural problems and industry which would take years to accomplish, years the country does not have because society is already showing signs of permanent disrepair. Egypt is a large domino and its fall will reverberate around Africa and the Middle East with more and more refugees dying on rafts and boats on the Mediterranean Sea or reaching the European Union by see or via the Greek-Turkish border. The 2011 estimate was around a hundred thousand that year with as many as two thousand who might have drowned, small numbers on a world scale, but the ultimate disaster for the ones involved.

 

A Dance of Creation and Destruction

 

Pakistan needs a bit more elaborate explanation, as in a sense it is key to the central theme of this book: brace for impact, as it is not only the largest country to fall apart soon, it is also the only nuclear power of the lot. Pakistan is a large country, comparable in size with Turkey or a size bigger than Texas with a population of 184 million, making it the sixth most populous country in the world.

 

But we take a look at the current situation the country is in, let’s go back to its roots a bit, because Pakistan, or rather the basin of the Indus and its tributaries, has been one of the cradles of human civilization and the cultures that flourished on its ancient lands have had a profound influence on Asia as a whole.

 

The Harappa Mohenjo Daro culture, one of the oldest urban cultures in the world, flourished at the banks of the river Indus and its tributaries more than five thousand years ago in an age where agriculture of wheat and rice were abundant enough to create a surplus for other classes to exist. Fruits and vegetables were cultivated as were cattle. The Hindu god Shiva with his exhilarating lifestyle of creation and destruction and his impressive riding animal, the bull Nandi were born on the banks of the Indus in a time that gold and bronze were worked and kings rode against each other. Cotton was woven into cloth and dyed in a lot of bright colors. Some of the oldest inconclusive signs of writing have been found here. Is was a time when the Indus flowed abundantly year round.

 

Shiva was and is a two faced deity, male and female, destroyer and creator, ascetic and a symbol of sensuality. In the most famous myth concerning Shiva, he saves humanity by holding in his throat the poison that churned up in the waters and threatened mankind. For this reason he is often depicted with a blue neck. Other depictions of Shiva have his hair in matted locks and piled atop his head like an ascetic and adorned with the crescent moon and the Indus, later the Ganges River and according to legend, he broke the river’s fall to earth by allowing her to trickle through his hair and thereby avoiding dangerous floods. The earliest statues show Shiva as the Nataraja, the cosmic dancer encircled in flames. Shiva came across my path two times in my life very vividly. The first time was in a small temple outside Agra, India. The festival of Mahashivaratri in his honor was well under way into the night and the autoriksja driver who brought me to a particularly auspicious Shiva temple, was way under the influence of Bhang, basically cannabis taken in a chillum (a clay pipe) or mixed with buttermilk. I definitely wasn’t under the influence, but when I came to the small temple, awash with worshippers, I was greeted by a smiling, meditative blue face that seemed to be projected on the large monolithic lingam (a phallus symbol of Shiva) , which was the temples center piece. As I approached, the face grew brighter until I came very near and suddenly it was gone, poof. It left me wondering for a bit, but the lively crowd left me no time to digest my experience and soon I was moving with the flow of the ecstatic temple dancers. The second time was quite different. When I was in My Son, in central Vietnam, a guide brought me to a group of ancient Shiva temples, completely abandoned and partially ruined. They were of from the kingdom of Cham which dated as far back as the fourth century AD. I entered a small decaying brick temple overgrown with vines and once inside I immediately found myself mesmerized by a fierce energy that locked my eye onto the lingam. For a few minutes I was trying to meditate, getting my mental bearings and then I made a picture of the dark interior without a flashlight. It was way before digital cameras, so I had to wait a week or two till I had my pictures developed. The ones of the dark interior of the Cham temple showed a fierce bolt of lightning hitting the lingam like there was a thunder storm going on in the little temple. I lost the pictures, the proof is gone and yet… unless I am mad, this is what happened.

Archeologists believe that the decline and the disappearance of the great Indus culture, with possibly as many as five million people in its cities at its zenith, was in part caused by a great drought in the 18th century B.C. and the cities were abandoned. The area has seen many a great culture come and go. Aryans who came over the Khyber Pass from the Asian steppes brought new life to the area as pastoralists as agriculture declined. It is from this time that the Mahabharata, one of the great texts of humanity, appeared on the scene and the great concept of Dharma, personified as the father of the central figure of Yuddhistira, the belief that there is a natural balance, harmony that makes the universe to what it is and that each has his own path to go through life, defined by his or her Dharma. Those who follow their path create their positive Karma, those who deviate, create negative Karma. Karma could be describes as ‘’you reap what you sow’’, in the case of Hindus taking your karma into new lives in a cycle of death and rebirth. The concepts of Dharma and Karma might be helpful tools for our future again as it all seems about restoring balance.

The complex history of the centuries that followed bringing the Muslim invasion, the Mughal Empire, the rise of the Sikhs, the British rule and the Partition between current India and Pakistan are way beyond the scope of this little book, but one thing is for sure, like the Egyptians and the Chinese, the Pakistani have seen it all. They have the whole of human civilization, its greatness and downfalls, its sweet roses from the gardens of Shalimar to the gory entrails of the many battles fought, coiled up in their subconscious. With that, there is a resilience in those ancient lands that give inner peace and strength even in today’s situation where the country is falling apart due to overpopulation, ecological degradation, droughts, floods, sectarian violence and corrupt politicians. The state of Pakistan is nearing its end, we will see how its people will fare through the great upheavals that have already started. They are used to turmoil, from the times that they traded with the faraway Pharaohs, saw the Aryans and Huns cross the steep mountain passes into the fertile plains of the Punjab and Sindh and now are caught between the devil and the deep blue see, in a web of a myriad of interwoven challenges that is reaching its conclusion.

 

Let us go back again to study a bit the lay of the land. Pakistan has five distinct regions, each with their own geographic and cultural characteristics. (The way I describe the land here is not completely in line with the administrative divisions.) The north-eastern Punjab is the agricultural heartland of Pakistan, characterized by large irrigated areas, fed by the tributaries of the Indus River, growing the bulk of wheat of the country and looking toward the historic city of Lahore, once a seat of the great Indian Moghul emperors and now home to about fifteen million people. The Punjab holds more than half the population and other large cities like Rawalpindi and the capital Islamabad. In the north of the country you find the sparsely populated rugged mountain areas of the Himalayas. This area, the Pakistani part of Kashmir is characterized by its snow clad mountain peaks including the famous K2 peak, at 8611 meters the second highest mountain in the world and its green lush valleys, where many a river starts to form, like the Jheelum and the Leepa. It is here where the mighty Indus River, the lifeline of the country, enters into Pakistan. Southwest of this area bordering Afghanistan are the so called Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA and the area around Peshawar including the strategic Khyber Pass area. This area of the Pashtuns has been fiercely independent in its behavior. Alexander the Great mentions the tribes that he was unable to conquer. The FATA, also partially claimed by Afghanistan, has been plagued by violence and is in fact under constant siege from the Pakistani army and American drones. Sindh in the southeast is the second most populous state with the megacity of Karachi, one of the world’s megacities, as its capital. Greater Karachi, the country’s financial and economic center and largest port, has about twenty four million inhabitants. The largest province is Baluchistan, comprising forty percent of Pakistan’s territory but just five percent of the population in an area that is largely desert like with a great variety in altitude and ethnic minorities.

 

The country had a very stormy history since the moment it broke away from India in 1947 with the Partition and the mass migration that followed between the two countries based on religious lines. Probably as many as a million people died in this chaotic break up after independence from the British Empire. One of the earlier moments of great tension was the breakup of the country after which East Bengal became Bangladesh. Frequent coups by the military and violent election processes have marked its development. The country has fought several wars with its large neighbor India over Kashmir and both sides have developed nuclear weapons.  The country is being torn apart by countless problems, including religious and ethnic fighting and terrorism and large parts of the country have sunk into a state of low intensity civil war. Just in the first months of 2013 thousands were killed or wounded in suicide attacks by Taliban and Pakistani army strikes, drone attacks by the Americans, summary executions and what have you. Particularly vicious are the recent outbreaks of attacks by Sunni Muslim extremists against the large minority of Shia in Baluchistan and Christians in Karachi.

But apart from that, common crime, including kidnapping for ransom, extortion and homicide are rampant, with Karachi alone reporting 2400 murders in 2012. The collapse of society has set in in the megacity.

 

The ecological deterioration of the country, as mentioned before in this book, has been staggering. Shiva had his hair cut and the great forests of its mighty mountains are basically gone, leaving waters falling on the Himalaya’s run off faster than ever. The great glaciers are in retreat. The floods of 2010 and 2012 were major disasters for the population, millions of whom lost everything. In May and June of 2013 a month long heat wave with temperatures up to 51 degrees killed hundreds of people and destroyed large part of the rice and sugar cane crops. It was the third major heat wave and together with the high temperatures over North West India does not bode well for the onset of the monsoon, which could again be very heavy due to the heat buildup. Meanwhile the Indus River and its tributaries have largely dried out, leaving people with little fresh water. Intense usage of the little that remains has polluted the water, increasing cases of water borne diseases. Meanwhile in cities power outages led to violent protests as the conditions became unbearable. In Lahore, temperatures past the 47 degrees Celsius mark and in Larnaka, a city of two million in the South, 51 degrees was recorded. People are awaiting anxiously for the return of the monsoon which came with devastating floods the last three years. Meteorologists agree that there is a direct nexus between climate change and the pattern of heat waves and floods that is crippling the Pakistani nation. Obviously many imams are preaching that Azaab has come to Pakistan. The heat waves and floods are the wrath of Allah for those who disobey His orders and deny His presence, showing the nexus between climate change, extreme weather events and increasing Islamic extremism invoked by people who are being pushed to their limits.

Where will this country go from here? Sure there are a lot of young, energetic people who were not born to give up their chance for a better life? But what are the odds really. The dance of destruction is in full motion with ecological destruction, poverty, overpopulation and conflict together triggering so many centrifugal forces, reinforcing each other, it is just a matter of a waiting for the obvious to happen. In fact the Americans already have scenario’s ready to make sure they take the atom bombs before the country breaks up and will be partly taken over by the Taliban and other Islamist groups. The effects on the region are unpredictable, but the chance of a war breaking out with Afghanistan or India, triggered by the internal chaos, is definitely in the cards.

 

 

The Orishas Are Retreating

 

When I first entered Nigeria in an overland trip some thirty years ago, I was amazed at the richness and beauty of the country. In the north the Fulani nomads with their impressive longhorn Watusi cattle would walk the savannas, which at the time I passed there, were green and many watering holes could be found at several places, even within the sand dunes of Katsina state that were encroaching from the Sahel, slowly interrupting large acacia savannas. The Fulani were always a magnificent sight wherever I would come across them in the Sahel, as these nomads travelled the pastures of Senegal all the way to the Sudan and back, lacking everything but freedom and cattle.

 

Nigeria then was a charming country, but full of challenges for a young white guy travelling around. The country’s south and especially its cities seems to be a sort of Wild West, where anything goes. The police seem as dangerous as the robbers as no rule of law seems to have established itself. The roads are a mess and it is the only place where I saw a man with rabies die while he was kept at bay in a field by men with long sticks. He was aggressive and hateful and in the end he just fell in the grass shaking with convulsions, froth at the mouth. When he could not move anymore, the people simply left him, heavily breathing and they told me to move on. It was a harsh reality, something I felt everywhere where I was, whether in the chaos of that huge city Muslim city Kano with its solemn, haughty tall men and colorful, friendly women or the steamy hot coastal strip with its vibrant, exhilarating markets teeming with life and with death. I remember being held up by a drunk cop who put his revolver on the head of my driver, demanding his money or his life. The driver replied: take my life and while I almost past out, the two started haggling over the price of his life which came down to less than ten dollars. When we drove off, completely shaken, I asked my driver, ‘’why did you do that?’’ ‘’Do what?’’, he asked. ‘’To say, take my life, rather than take my money?”. ‘’Oh, if I would have said ‘’take my money’’, he would have thought of me as a coward and would have killed me, you probably too because you were a witness. But because I stood my ground, he respected me and I came down to paying a few naira that you now are going to repay to me.’’ I remember entering into an open air disco and a sexy girl came running, panting, saying, ‘’take me with you, take me with you’’. I paid the entrance fees for both and when we were in, she kissed me and said, ‘’you saved me’’. ‘’Saved you from what?” I asked? ‘’From the cops who wanted to arrest me for soliciting. They would have taken me to the police station and would have each raped me. But you saved me, so now you can buy me a beer.’’ The wildness of it all took me by surprise as it did everywhere I went in that crazy country, where I saw from a rooftop cops shoot and kill four people who were disobeying a curfew order. But the country was full of beautiful forests and Yankari National Park was full of wildlife, from the great cats to hippos and elephants and the largest baboons I ever saw, one showing off his teeth when I tried to stop him from stealing a watermelon I had bought earlier on the side of the road from a friendly farmer. I even had a morning bath together with a wild elephant, who definitely found spraying herself and me with her trunk was a fun thing to do. Nigeria, so full of life, so teeming. Even then, with a lot of quiet patches in the north, the country seemed overpopulated. It now almost has double that amount of people and although I have not been back, I know things must be getting worst fast. Of course there is Boko Haram, the fanatic Muslim group that wants to establish a Muslim state in Nigeria come hell or high water.

 

Nigeria’s population has doubled in just thirty years to around 170 million and its challenges today are much, much worse today. In the north east, society is beginning to break down as a result of drought, desertification and water supplies. The recent offensive of the Nigerian army against the fundamentalist Boko Haram movement has brought this part of the country to the state of a civil war, also affecting Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The country as a whole has been plagued by a succession of drought and floods in 2012 leaving the already ramshackle infrastructure of the country in an even worse state. The country is suffering from rapid deforestation, soil degradation, desertification in the North, oil pollution in its coastal areas, an exploding population bringing city infrastructures to its knees. In the North whole areas are lacking drinking water, which has become a daily struggle for hundreds of thousands in states like Katsina and Borno.

 

On the other side of the country is Lagos, the largest city in Africa, home to twenty million people, half officially registered, the other simply being there. Up from a million in 1965, this city is possibly the worst example on Earth of a metropolis gone out of control, projected to become the biggest city on Earth in a few decades at around forty million. A room in Lagos houses on average four people and more than two third of the people live in slums. Its traffic congestion is is worsening by the year despite measures taken by the city authorities. More than a million people from other parts of Nigeria stream to the city for a period of months and at least a thousand newcomers stay every day to never leave. The drought that has been affecting the country has increased this influx a lot lately for farmers who have sold their belongings and are now looking for a job to survive.

Lagos has a lot of slums on stilts in Lagos lagoon, including Makoko, the largest one, a collection of ramshackle huts made of bamboo and driftwood, with no infrastructure apart from the water that floats between the sticks, which is infected with cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases from the waste of the people living there. It was being dismantled by the government starting in 2012 to make way for high end development, leaving the quarter of a million poor inhabitants to fend for themselves, but the obvious conflict that arose between the inhabitants and the government has stalled into a stalemate. But it is not just Lagos’ poor that are being threatened. Victoria Island and Lekki peninsula, two modern upmarket neighborhoods, have seen a steady erosion of the sea shore, leaving these areas more and more vulnerable to storms and high tides. The sea here is particularly strong with high waves and fierce currents. Plans to build enormous sea barriers are in progress and could stave off the impact.

But Lagos is facing many more problems, including that of drinking water. While surrounded by fresh water and sea water, drinking water has become scarcer and scarcer and most people rely water bought from trucks and small time water vendors, called Mairuwa in Hausa Language, as they have taken their old trade from the Sahelian zone to this huge tropical city awash with water. The business is mainly run by illegal immigrants from Niger and Nigerians fleeing the increasingly difficult situation in the north of the country.

Nigeria is losing forests at a more rapid rate than any country in the world. Since 1990, the country has lost over six million hectares or 36%, of its forest cover, leaving a forest cover of the whole country to about ten percent, down from seventy percent or so at the end of the Second World War. This all despite large government projects to reforest the country from the 1950’s onwards.

All in all the explosive mix of population explosion, increased floods and droughts, soil degradation and deforestation have brought this most populous country on the brink of collapse, with parts already in civil war.

 

A Drowning Tiger

 

Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated country of any size with currently 157 million inhabitants living on an area slightly larger than the state of Florida or twice the size of Ireland and growing with about two million a year. Its capital, Dhaka is home to about 14 million people. Dhaka is one of the world’s fastest growing cities, with an influx of at least half a million people from the country side a year. While the economy is definitely doing well against all odds, growing on average around six percent per year despite cyclones, floods, drought, political instability, terrible infrastructure, corruption and a mind boggling inefficient state apparatus, power cuts and water crises. This poor, overpopulated country somehow defies gravity. Even during the world recession from 2008 onwards, the country stayed remarkably afloat. It has a low debt to GNP ratio, a fast increasing income per person and despite the fact it is not self-sufficient in food, it can pay for its bills through the large exports of garments and remittances from overseas Bengalis, mainly working in the Middle East and Malaysia. Despite all the challenges somehow the country could be in for a great future if you look on the surface of it. It could even be a new economic tiger. But somehow a lot of menaces are lurking under the surface.

Let’s start with a small story. A recent census brought to light that several parts of the country were in fact showing a declining population. For example Barisal, one of the seven administrative divisions of the country, located south of the capital, an area slightly larger than Jamaica, has shown a shrinking population. Despite its fertile land and abundant water, Barisal is seeing its population growth reversed because of the rapid migration to Dhaka, not because the families are getting a lot less children. In the last decade alone two million of its inhabitants have moved away from this area, mainly into Dhaka. Although the reasons are not abundantly clear, the probable cause is the increased salinity of the lands. Up to a third might be unsuitable for agriculture as a direct effect of the in surge of sea water from cyclones. Just the storm surge of two cyclones, Sidr in 2007 and Aila in 2009 left large parts inundated with seawater, making them unfit for traditional agriculture, which is being replaced by shrimp farming, which needs much higher investments, leaving it out of reach for simple farmers. In fact, without being noticed, some two million ecological refugees have filled up the slums of Dhaka, which itself is facing more and more of a water crisis in many ways. Just a look at the four rivers surrounding the city would make you sick. These rivers are basically open sewers with no aquatic life in them anymore and sometimes their foul vapors can be smelled a mile away. The rivers have been polluted mainly with chemicals from the cloth dyeing industry and of course from raw wastage.

But also drinking water is more and more of a problem as the ground water level is falling by about a meter a year, now standing at more than fifty meters below sea-level and slowly saline water is creeping in. New fresh water installations are being constructed at the cost of $1.8 billion to supply seventy percent of the city’s water demand from rivers sixty kilometers upstream from the city as arer by the water is too polluted to be treated. In remote areas of the country tens of millions are living an increasingly hard life with water scarcity and difficulties related to droughts and floods.

Herculean efforts have been put in increasing the agricultural output and over the last forty years and rice production has tripled, making it the fourth largest rice producer worldwide after China, India and Indonesia. But due to the immense population growth, the floods and droughts which the country is facing more and more due to climate change and the slow decline in area that can be used for agricultural production, deep poverty and malnutrition are on the rise again.

While in many ways Bangladesh is at the forefront of fighting the battle against floods from its abundant rivers and from the storms that hit the Bay of Bengal regularly, it is unlikely that the country will be able to defend itself against these enormous challenges. The ‘coup de grâce’ could come fairly quickly the moment an extreme monsoon coincides with a cyclone pushing up a storm surge from the Bay of Bengal. I hope we will never come to a situation where world leaders have to start a triage in choices made where to help and where not, but Bangladesh might appear quickly at the bottom of the list as help in the face of so much adversity could well be just a matter of buying a bit of time before it is hit again.

 

 

BRUISED BUT NOT MORTALLY WOUNDED

 

It is up to Vishnu and Shiva

 

On 30 July 2012 a giant black out started to roll from New Delhi to other parts of India and by the next day more than six hundred million people or nine percent of the world population were out of electricity while temperatures in the capital soared to 46 degrees centigrade. The power outage stretched from the Pakistani border in the west to the border with Myanmar in the East. The effects were mind boggling: hospitals were in trouble, enormous traffic jams in cities, people trapped in mines, trains and elevators and shopping malls that were powered by private aggregates overwhelmed by people who wanted to stay cool. India’s power grid has been unreliable for as long as I know the country and when you look how the wiring is done, it is amazing that it is working at all. Every family and business that can afford it, has a generator around to kick in when there is another black out or brown out.

In recent years however, the situation has gotten worse due to fast economic growth.

India’s demand for electricity has soared in recent years as its economy grew rapidly, leaving utilities struggling to keep up. The country’s Central Electricity Authority has reported power deficits of more than eight per cent in recent months. What made things worse were the poor monsoon rains that both caused higher than usual temperatures increasing demand for air conditioners and at the same time lowered output of hydropower stations, while the growing season for rice was in full swing, demanding power for pumps to irrigate the paddy fields in view of the lack of rain. At the same time the production of electricity had been impacted due to low electricity from hydroelectric dams due to low water levels and to power plants having to scale back due to lack of cooling water. A lot of industries and businesses, being used to this part of the crumbling Indian infrastructure, they turned on their own generators, puffing more diesel smoke into the sultry air of large cities like Delhi and Kolkata. Even for Indian standards these days were pretty unbearable.

Why the story is interesting is because lack of rain and higher temperatures were part of the cause of the collapse of the grid and also showed the increased vulnerability of this second most populous country in the world. India is hailed as an economic tiger and after China and Japan the third largest economy of Asia. But with a population of over 1.2 billion people, growing with forty thousand a day, the country is also an ecological mine field, with enormous water stress, and pollution of air, water and soil. Especially the challenges surrounding water are enormous.

The country is bordered to the North by the largest mountain chain in the world, the Himalayas, from which most of its major rivers flow of which the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Brahmaputra are the largest. Melt water from its snows and glaciers are an important part of India’s fresh water reserves outside the monsoon. It is in the basin of these three great rivers that the greatest population concentration is found already from the beginning of times. India’s climate and life cycle is dominated by the yearly summer monsoon, bringing relief both in temperature and water after a blistering hot spring with temperatures way up in the forties. The onset of the monsoon is a happy moment, because it not only cools down the heated land, but it also provides the necessary water for the large crops of rice, wheat and other produce. A bad monsoon has triggered famines in its past, leading to millions of deaths, the last time in 1943 with casualties possibly as high as two million. Since then food security has increased substantially due to improved crop species, better transport and irrigation and large storage capacity. Since the 1950’s the monsoons on average have had a decrease in rainfall and short drought periods have become more frequent. At the same time, the number of torrential downpours have increased both in number and intensity. Just today, as I am writing this, probably hundreds of people were killed in the Himalaya’s with tens of thousands stuck due to destroyed roads. It was called the worst flash flood in living memory that triggered the disaster. At the same time, the monsoon rains were welcomed as the country that was actually suffering from a drought.

India’s climate vulnerability lies specifically in extreme pre-monsoon heat waves and monsoons that are either too heavy or too light. According to a recent World Bank report (Turn Down The Heat) all these three things will happen far more frequently than before with the rise of the world temperature. Some weather models show even a retreat from the monsoon due to higher temperatures in the future, leaving the country suddenly in a much dryer state. This scenario is speculative but would be an absolute disaster if it would happen. Apart from that, three of its largest cities, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai are vulnerable to a combination of sea level rise, high tides and storms, making extensive flooding in the near future all but a certainty and already aquifers in parts of Chennai have been infiltrated with sea water up to fifteen kilometers from the coastline, due to over extraction of fresh water and increasing high tides.

But what is more likely to happen is that irregularities in the weather, with too much heat, extreme water scarcity and black outs in the hot spring months, followed by too much water or too little during the monsoon month, leaving people suffering immensely, would trigger civil unrest to an extent that it could derail the country. In Maharashtra state droughts triggered violent water riots in the spring of 2013 as more than five thousand villages and hamlets had to be supplied by water with the help of tankers.

Because the country as a whole has considerable wealth, it is probably able to diminish the early effects of climate change. But this is not the case with its neighbor Bangladesh. Since a couple of years the borders between the two countries are completely fenced to keep the Bangladeshis out. The effects of overpopulation and the deterioration of land has forced millions Bangladeshi into India already, possibly as many as ten million of them in an area that already is heavily overpopulated. With a shoot on sight order for border guards and the fence, this influx has come down to a trickle. But you could easily see how large scale destruction after a cyclone or a river flood in Bangladesh or a double whammy, could lead to a forcible entry of hundreds of thousands into India with the Indian army to stop them with force. This could happen as early as in the aftermath of the next big disaster. Since Bangladesh is mostly Muslim and India mostly Hindu, this could trigger large scale violence from Pakistan to Myanmar.

Why did I not mention the ancient roots of India’s culture here? Because they are largely similar to that of Pakistan, which has been described before. But there is a very important thing to tell about Hinduism. The great Hindu texts are full of respect for nature, mountains, rivers, forests, animals. It is a vegetarian religion in essence and the Earth is worshipped as the mother Goddess Devi. From what I understand of Hinduism the current ecological crisis would have to be understood as a spiritual crisis as well. How far has India has trailed from its magnificent roots.

 

The Eagles Are Getting a Beating

 

Where to start with how the USA is faring. The day I am writing this, a heat wave in Alaska has drawn people to the beaches. Temperatures of the last ten days reached as high as 96 degrees F or 35 Celsius. Good for them, they could use a break after an extremely long winter which lingered on till the end of May with record snow and an unusually cold spring. So, enjoy folks!

Let’s first look at the weather a bit. The list of extreme weather events in the USA has been incredible the last few years, with 2012 topping as the hottest summer on record, with two thirds of the country affected by droughts, thousands of heat records being chattered.

By the end of the summer, half of America’s counties were designated as disaster areas. Crops were suffering severely with soybeans and corn harvests worst affected. 1.3 million acres (half a million hectares) of land went up in smoke bush and forest fires. Most cattle farmers were affected intensely too. The year was rounded off with the devastation of hurricane Sandy, drowning large parts of the Atlantic shore lines, even trying to flood Wall Street!

Forest fires in the USA burn up twice as much land on average per year now as it did forty years ago, with a wildfire season lasting two months longer and the fires becoming more explosive due to hotter and drier conditions produced by climate change according to the country’s forest service chief in a report to Congress in June of 2013. The damage increase is a lot higher because there are a lot more houses than in the time of Nixon.

Now, I can go on like this for a long time, but I won’t. Point is, the USA is one of the countries which is getting a real beating from recent climate change effects and the show is only beginning.

Still the country is largely focused on fixing the economy after the devastating recession of 2008 and after. Lots of measures by states, cities and counties, as well as the fragile economy actually made an impact on CO2 emissions which have already gone down by about ten percent from its peak in 2006. Obama finally announced his measures to counter climate change in june 2013 with important effects on its coal fired electric power plants and efficiency measures to reduce CO2 emissions and all but stopping the Keystone pipeline, which was intended to bring shale oil from Canada to Texas. Better late than never, but surely not enough to slow down our decent into chaos.

 

While at the Pentagon generals and admirals are pondering on the effects of climate change on security within the USA and especially in parts of Asia, the headlines just show economy, economy, economy, interrupted by a breaking news item about a flood or a forest fire every now and then.

The mood in the country is optimistic (as it is by nature I guess) as Bernanke is littering the streets with dollar bills and the country is going through a new energy boom.

Recent development in shale oil and gas extraction are short term solutions with increasing investment costs and costs to especially the water supply in already dry states like Colorado. This dirty and expensive technology is hailed as a panacea for the economic problems of the USA, heralding its energy independence from the ever volatile Middle East, that were it not for Israel, could be left by the USA for China and Japan to manage, as those countries need the oil from those regions much more than the USA today and more so in a few years.

Let’s hope the USA is using this window of opportunity of a decade or so to make the change to an economy based on non-fossil fuel, sustainable energy, which would be enough if the country would put its mind behind it.

While I never have been a great fan of conspiracy theories about a handful of power mongers in the USA deciding the fate of the planet, I need to mention Naomi Klein’s book about the companies in this country who are making money of the chaos, in part created by the United States itself, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, we all know that there is a well-financed campaign out there for the sole purpose to sow doubts in the minds of people about human induced climate change, in order to avoid stricter regulations to their businesses. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and their oil companies spend millions on misleading information campaigns and I do not doubt that these shady figures do not hesitate to buy their way into the corridors of power all to earn a but at the expense of the future of humanity. But all in all I believe the country can overcome these dangerous self-serving fools and start moving fast to reform its economy. Maybe the USA democracy has been a fig leave to cover up the cynical power of big corporations and wealthy individuals getting their way. But I do not doubt that once the smart people of that great country decide things need to change at a war footing, it will happen and very fast at that.

 

 

The Unpredictable Bear

 

Everyone who has ever been to Russia must have been overwhelmed by its vastness. In many ways Russia looks larger than the rest of the planet because it is so empty with its unending unspoiled expanses of forests, steps and tundra’s. A sign in the center of Moscow reads Vladivostok 9288 km and Napoleon nor Hitler were able to cover the much smaller distance from the border of Poland to the capital of the world’s largest country. I do not blame the czars, whether they are Ivan the Terrible, a Romanov, Stalin or people like Jeltsin or Putin assume a demi god status looking from the walls of the Kremlin, like they have done for a bit short of a thousand years. These strong leaders remained there, behind the walls of one of the world’s greatest castles, surrounded by churches where mystic monks prayed between age old icons to preserve the balance in the universe. The czar was there in the middle of the Russian universe holding the Huns and Mongols at bay and the invading armies from these small but tenacious European nations and more recently that young upstart of a United States of America. It only sees eye to eye with the Chinese emperor and more recently, with the US president. The rest of the world forces are peanuts in their eyes.  This country is also ethnically immensely diverse with its Tatars, Kazakhs, Ossetians, Altay and Chechens, to name just a few. The patch work of republics and autonomous regions is largely unknown outside the country. Did you know there is a Buddhist republic in Europe, twice the size of the Netherlands? It is Kalmykia at the Caspian Sea. The size of its forests is larger than that of the Amazon and growing, due to the warming of the planet. We could go on in superlatives about this amazing place, which in many ways is recovering from ecological disasters from the Soviet era, rather than suffering from climate change.
During the seventy years of communist rule, the plan economy of the Soviet Union inflicted wide-spread environmental damage in its quest to forcefully industrialize and create the world’s most awesome military power. The demise of the Soviet Union is in many ways a good study for things to come for the rest of the world. Although the historians are fighting over the causes, it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost or openness, which triggered perestroika, or restructuring, of the Soviet society. “A reappraisal of values and their creative rethinking is under way.” He later said: “we couldn’t go on like that any longer, and we had to change life radically, break away from the past malpractices.” The leaders were sick and tired about lying. While the military scooped up enormous resources, the civilians were waiting in line for poor produce. The push on economic and military supremacy had led to large ecological destruction, including a catastrophic accident like Chernobyl, one in a long line of nuclear accidents during the Soviet Era. The USSR was also a large importer of grains as its socialized agriculture was not able to feed its people, the difference largely paid for by oil. But more important to its collapse was the lack of hope, of spirit that drained the energy of its people. The collapse led to a complete reorganization of its economy and a declining population in the last decade of the twentieth century.

 

Russia’s food production has increased a lot since the rough years of the transition and today the country is a major export of wheat. With the growing season lengthening due to increased temperature and the wheat line slowly moving north, the country could actually be in for a boon and even its forests are growing on the north side where the tundra’s retreat. But at the same time a large number of recent extreme weather events have had immediate consequences, with forest and peat bog fires threatening Moscow in the hottest Russian summer ever in 2010. This extremely hot Russian summer, combined with low rainfall decreased grain production in southern Russia, Kazakhstan and other neighbouring countries to such an extent that Russia declared an export ban to protect its local food supply. In the following years, the situation remained bad due to drought like circumstances, affecting the country’s harvest. Extreme floods near its Black Sea coast and new, more extensive forest, taiga and peat fires (more than thirty million hectares, an area the size of Italy) in 2012 were new proof that global warming was taking its toll. At the same time, the fires are also increasing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere in an alarming way, negating the large decline in emissions of the Russian industry compared to the Soviet period.

In the new era we are entering worldwide, we will first need a moment of glasnost and perestroika to realise where we are and what will need to happen to limit the already catastrophic damage. We will also need a new economic system and above all, a new morality, a new pact with our planet.

Russia itself might play a role in quickly increasing its food production in times of need, it might also be the territory where, with the melting of the permafrost a new deadly round of greenhouse gas emissions will be unleashed with the release of millions of tons of methane, locked frozen till now in its soil. As always the bear is unpredictable.

 

 

The Kangaroo Gets Roasted

 

With less than twenty three million inhabitants living on an entire continent and an area a size smaller than Brazil, Australia seems to be the one country that should not be in our watch list for the global knock on effects of local disruptions triggered by climate change. It is a rich, spacious country with low unemployment and steady growth for the last twenty years or so, partly on the tail of China’s rapid expansion, only mildly impacted by the 2008 crisis and a bit far from the rest of the world, so anything happening over there would affect the Australians, but not much else. Or will it? Actually it could. Australia is one of the countries most affected by climate change. Record heat waves, large wildfires, increasingly powerful tropical storms and enormous floods as well as immense bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef have awoken the Australians to the peril they are in. The country, with its vast expanses of deserts and dry bush regions and a chronic lack of water in all but the north most and south eastern part, has always been a fragile natural environment that could quickly morph into a habitat unsuitable for humans to live. Recent extreme weather events, included a heat wave prompting the Bureau of Meteorology to add a color to their temperature map to indicate temperatures for the 52-54 degrees centigrade or 126-129 Fahrenheit scale. In a 2013 report by the climate commission, called “The Critical Decade’’ the effects of climate change to Australia have been abundantly documented. One of the effects that stood out, came from a detailed study of a January 2009 heat wave in Melbourne. The number of ‘’natural’’ deaths during days with peak temperatures above 43 degrees centigrade more than doubled. The increase was partly due to the shutdown of electric power due to overheating of elements in the grid, with up to half a million people without power and therefore the shutdown of air conditioners, triggering deaths and hospitalization of vulnerable people. Another effect was the large scale disruption to the transport system mainly from tracks buckling under the heat. The damage of the heat wave in the Melbourne area alone was estimated at 800 million Australian dollars.

Australia has been one of the early large scale victims of the effects of climate change with the Millennium Drought of 1997-2009 in the Southern half of the continent being one of the most severe and far reaching in its history, with enormous impact on food production and water supplies.

The report also documents large die off of flying foxes, possums and koala’s during heat waves, showing the vulnerability of wild animals towards the heat as well.

Recent droughts and unsustainable water use threaten the huge Murray-Darling Basin in the South East of the country with a catchment area of a million square kilometers, which supplies water to more than three million people and to thousands of farms producing billions of dollars of agricultural produce using irrigation waters from this river system, the largest in the land.

With eighty percent of the population living within fifty kilometers from the coast, coastal erosion due to high tides and tropical storms has done severe damage to coastal infrastructure and property. Months of reporting of the dramatic events have changed the mood in the country and most Australians now realize that large parts of their country will be devoid of al life including plants, trees, animals and humans if the world will not change its CO2 dependent economy very, very fast. A CO2 tax is in place and a very influential green movement is doing everything to stop further investment in the coal industry and things could be moving to the point that Australia will decide to leave the black gold in the ground. It would be a great victory in the battle to stop climate change, but at the same time it would be an enormous loss to its economy, with a value of tens of billions of dollars. It would also trigger a large price hike of coal as Australia is the largest coal exporter in the world, fueling the industries and power plants of Japan and other Asian countries, impacting their competitive edge.

Proof of that came when extensive flooding of some of the world’s largest coal mines in the huge Australia’s eastern coalfields, after torrential rains in January of 2013, interrupted production and transport and caused the world coal prices to spike immediately.

 

 

The Coughing Dragon

 

China again is one of the old countries, awoken to agriculture thousands of years ago with the planting and harvesting of millet and rice along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in central China. It is said that the first emperor, Dayu, who lived around 2200 B.C., already worked on controlling the floods that ravaged China at that time. One of my most precious objects is a copy of a bronze wine bottle from the Spring and Autumn Period, ranging from the eight to fifth century B.C., beautifully crafted by masters in the art and a token of the high level of development of the time.  It was the time when Confucius taught his philosophy on society, government, ethics and justice and Lao Tzu his thoughts on how to live in harmony with nature. We humans are seen as a microcosm of the universe and we have to calmly enjoy its beauty and establish a balance in life understanding the interacting opposite forces of yin and yang. It was a time, by the way that saw the dawn of great thinkers worldwide as the Buddha, Socrates and Plato were more or less his contemporaries. How the world has changed from those masterly days of smilingly understanding the world without wrecking it.

Jumping to modern times, China has performed the greatest economic miracle of all times, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in less than forty years since Deng Xiaoping announced the economic reform of his Country in 1978. It is now the second largest economy in the world after the USA which it is forecasted to surpass in as little as a decade. China has become a dynamic society, technically advanced, economically well managed and financially sophisticated. Who visited China a generation back and now have difficulty describing the utter transformation and on such an enormous territory involving a fifth of the human population. A key question about this transformation is the price the country has paid in ecological terms and if the development, even at a much slower pace is sustainable.

 

A few years back I was driven through the center of Zhengzhou with a local friend of mine. Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, is a historic city of about nine million lies at the heart of Chinese civilization and no doubt humans have been living here on the south bank of the Yellow River for thousands of years. My friend, Joy, born and raised in that city told me about the incredible development they had gone through and she was proud and happy about it. She managed to buy a brand new two hundred square meters for herself and her little daughter. Her boss, Mister Kung, was a local tycoon who, from a bureaucrat, had developed into a sort of owner of the provincial tourism company with a monopoly in a market of about a hundred million people. A private dinner with him was taken from golden plates and delicacies were served including specially prepared donkey and camel and expensive cognac. All communication with him went through a translator. We were going to set up a joint venture in tourism and the only thing he needed was to talk, eat and drink with his high placed friends in Beijing to get the licenses done. Our plans was to increase tourism to the province from new markets like India and Turkey. The whole process was a mystery to me but his high friends somehow never came around to helping him out and the company never got created.
I distinctly remembered in the few days I stayed there the yellowish grey haze hanging over the city and I was unable to make out if it was a cloudless day or not. When asked about it, Joy told me they had not seen the sun in two years in the city. A visit to the Yellow river was not much happier, I was amazed at the strange odor escaping from the water. She did not seem to notice. The river derives its name from the top soil that changes the color of its waters since the beginning of deforestation in China more than two thousand years ago.

 

China has enormous pollution problems. Millions of Chinese suffer every day from massive air pollution, triggering an epidemic of respiratory diseases like asthma and lung cancer in its cities which belong to the most polluted in the world. In the last five years the situation has gotten so bad, the population started to protest about the terribly unhealthy situation and it seems the leadership has become more inclined to do something about it for real. With its enormous resources, China is able to invest in cleaning up and it seems that the great lumbering giant has woken up to the mortal perils of the pollution it has created in less than a generation, threating to cut short its enormous success. Recent government measures to rake in polluting industries and apply much stricter norms to new industrial projects are a positive development, but the question remains if the measures are really implemented as a lot depends on local authorities who have a lot to lose from closing polluting factories. Time will tell if the degradation to its soil and water supply and the recurring droughts and floods induced by increased CO2 have not already unleashed a process that will, within a decade, erode China’s boisterous economy and make it grind to a halt, revealing social and ethnic fault lines that have partially been covered up by throwing money at it.

 

This is all the more true as more and more doubts are thrown on the health of the Chinese economy. In an article on 17 June in the Financial Times, Hank Paulson, former US Treasury secretary who was at the heart of the 2008 financial storm gripping the world, indicated that China is suffering from enormous overcapacity in large industrial sectors, such as steel, aluminum, cement, cars and shipping as well as housing, in large part financed by local and provincial governments. The overcapacity and ensuing low prices have pushed many industries in the red, unable to pay back loans and making the intransparent credit books of banks and lower governments more and more unsustainable. As a lot of the overcapacity exists in industries that will quickly need to adapt to higher environmental standards as well, chance is that the leadership will start to intervene wholesale, killing two birds with one stone. But the shakeout will not go unnoticed in the nervous financial centers of the world as the Chinese banks suffer the same problems as the western ones, with trillions of loans on their books based on inflated asset prices.

 

Although China has undertaken large reforestation programs trying to stop desertification and the ‘’yellow dragons’’, large sandstorms that routinely cover Beijing and other cities in the north of the country. Millions of hectares of desert and agricultural land have been reforested under the ‘’Green Wall of China’’ project, the largest of its kind in history.

 

As time is running out for China and the world to fix the carbon economy-climate change nexus, one of the few real options to mitigate the damage of future inevitable disruptions, is to radically reform the Chinese economy on a war footing.

 

The Weary Bull

 

In the Bible, the history of Man starts with the banishment from Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden, where they lived in a natural paradise of plenty and beauty. It was the serpent that put them to the eating of the apple of knowledge, whereupon they were evicted by God, now having to live scraping a living from the soil with toil and sweat. It seems the transition to agriculture from the time of hunter gatherers was not a happy one.

While the ancient philosophers in India and China concentrated more on the way humans could be in balance with themselves and nature, the Greek philosophers seemed to be fed up with the fighting going on on Mount Olympus and tried a more practical, systematic approach to nature and society. From Thales and Pythagoras to Aristotle they concentrated on a foundation for the sciences and in many ways prepared the way for our great success and downfall of today. But it was Plato who preferred a society led by king-philosophers, wise people, who were not to hold property and derived pleasure simply from organizing society for the wellbeing of its citizens.

 

The European Union and its predecessors has entered its seventh decennium, a project that was awarded with the Nobel Price for peace, and rightfully so. After two devastating World Wars the continent has had its longest peaceful area in history, with the exception of the Balkan War. I guess you could call this the most ambitious project for peace ever undertaken. Despite all economic worries and reports of its demise, the 27 nation bloc remains the largest economy in the world and very powerful. It is still largely an area with a resilient culture if compared to the Middle East, Africa and large parts of Asia. Yet a lot of friction and headwind is hitting the European Union on a lot of levels: economic, cultural and political and the population of Europe and its leaders seem to be out of step with each other. In many countries nationalist parties are gaining influence and in Great Britain a full retreat is openly discussed.

At the environmental front, Europe is maybe the least suffering under ecological degradation of all important areas in the world, largely because the deforestation and increased use of agricultural land are centuries old and new equilibriums have been found a long time ago. Stress on resources is not that intense because the population growth has mostly stabilized. Population issues center largely around the aging population, increased life expectancy and immigration. Europe as a whole has made more progress towards a low carbon economy, although in terms of what is needed, we are still talking small steps. In terms of food production the area is well off and from an ecological point of view the continent is in a relatively comfortable situation, probably able to absorb shocks to its agricultural production for a while, at least if Russia will be providing it with enough natural gas.

But it is far from immune to climate change as recent flooding, exceedingly cold and snowy winters and heat waves have proven. The impact of global warming, triggering changes to the Arctic, which in turn triggers changes to the climate to this part of the world, will have its impact in lower food output and larger bills for the reconstruction and improvement efforts after natural calamities.

The largest short term threats in Europe come from the fragility of the financial system, centered on the euro and the ‘’too big to fail’’ banks of the continent, the economic downturn and the centrifugal forces of large economic differences between Northern and Southern Europe and its detrimental effect on the political situation, which could get worse as well as on pressures coming from the far more instable areas in the Middle East and fragile Africa.

Especially the situation in the Middle East will most likely deteriorate into a large scale war or mass chaos, which will increase the military costs in Europe considerably, taking away resources from restructuring our financial and economic systems to a sustainable one. It will also have a major effect on oil and gas prices, which in turn will push the recession deeper and pushing food prices up.

Democracies in the current setting have not shown a great ability to confront major crises as its leaders are only able to make incremental steps in a very complex context. So it is not unlikely that authoritarian regimes, voted in by majorities fed up with the mess, will take over again, setting the agenda for the decades to come when the pressures are getting to high due to a combination of the collapse of financial systems, the damage of natural disasters and the pressures coming from a disintegrating Middle East.

 

 

THE HURRICANE STRIKES

 

“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”

 

― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

 

Major crises take decades of seemingly unconnected build up tensions in various aspects of society, but once the build-up has taken place, sudden shocks can cause an avalanche of effects, and quite unpredictable ones at that. The strange thing is that a lot of crises, which with twenty-twenty hindsight, could have been clearly predicted, were a complete surprise, especially to the leadership, when they happened. Whether it was the collapse of the Roman Empire, the onset of the French or Russian revolution, the Great Depression or the Financial Crisis of 2008, they took all but a small minority by surprise, while the chaos was building up clearly for all to see. The collapse of Bear Stearns in March of 2008 was the prelude to the Lehman Brother tipping point and the breakdown of the world financial system. Only in the wee hours of the nights from Sunday to Monday the Mighty Few would decide the fate of world economy with rash decisions which, till date did not turn this crisis into a world depression, for now. On the other hand, if they somehow would have let the bank live and sold it for a dime, the immediate damage might have been a lot less. Those decisions relating to some of the most complex systems humans built up over time, were taken, al be it by very experienced people, on the basis of instinct and gut feeling, rather than on analyzing tons of data overwhelming them. And the decisions they made were radical and daring. Now, financial crises, large and small are a constant in world history, at least since the Renaissance. But the current one is much more complex because of globalization, overpopulation, the far too rapid development of China, increasing local natural crises, the depletion of resources and of course the uninhibited greed of banks to maximize profits and externalize risks, to mention some of the ingredients, making for much more volatility than all previous ones.

 

Thomas Friedman, in an article in the New York Times (8 March 2009) hit the nail on the head with his analyses: “”Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

 

‘’We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese … ‘’

We can’t do this anymore.

 

He quotes Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert: “We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children. — You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior. … it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate …’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

 

So the build up to the global crisis has been well underway for decades and we know that population growth, environmental degradation and global warming each will trigger their own lethal crises and in conjunction more so with unimaginable knock on effects to the whole fabric of global human society. The costs of the disintegration are not only rising exponentially, they are also crossing thresholds of irreversibility. And you know what? The world over, young people feel it in their guts.

 

Scientists have shown this without a shadow of a doubt in a thousand reports analyzing a thousand causes and effects of pollution, soil degradation, increasing water scarcity, overpopulation, resource depletion, CO2 emissions, overfishing and what have you, warning us to turn the ship, but they all put the effects in the future and do not connect the dots. The climate experts talk about tipping points which can suddenly, radically irreversibly change the situation on Earth. Things like the breakdown of the monsoon over India and Pakistan, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet or the die back of the Amazonian forests are mentioned. But what they do not mention is that the current food production system is dependent on a functioning transport system, a functioning fossil fuel market, sufficient water to irrigate, sufficient fertilizer, in all a functioning global system. If that breaks up because of the collapse of the financial system, a war which increases prices and interrupts the flow of oil, enormous protests or migration flows due to unbearable local event, large parts of the system will stop functioning, triggering a quick deterioration in agriculture, in food supplies, etc. The knock on effects could happen as early as this year, depending on what weather events will influence the outcomes of this year’s harvests or the situation in the Middle East, or the Fed stopping the dollar printing press.

It is not like our world leaders are unaware of the situation, though possibly underestimating the speed of events that could happen at any moment. It is not that they are playing while Rome is burning, but they do everything to ‘’avoid a hard landing’’, thereby actually worsening the situation that they are not able to manage and do not want us to know. Because realizing the gravity of the situation might trigger a tipping point by itself. So in my view they are postponing and thereby amplify the inevitable reckoning. Everybody is crossing their fingers for a bumper harvest 2013 and of course I hope that too. We cannot postpone the message. We have to prepare at a war footing on all levels of society. The reason why it will not happen is because an alternative for the current financial-economic system will not be embraced by the rich and powerful until they are left with no other choice.

 

The effects of climate change and the other mentioned factors are here, now, to stay and to increase and soon tip the balance, not in 2050 or the end of this century. People are already killing each other wholesale because of environmental stress and the bill of extreme weather events worldwide has easily past the trillion dollars a year mark.

 

Now, what makes me so sure we are far closer to large scale unraveling of societies and why it is happening now, and of course, if so, how, when, where? The problem is, I don’t know. I can give you all the ingredients of mayhem, we can make political, economic, environmental, climatologic checklists to see where we are, and yet they will not reveal what will be the trigger or triggers of spiraling chaos, which I predict is merely years away. But what we can do, is try to understand the factors in play and look at several sides of the story, which covers developments worldwide.

 

The X factors that divides a shock which does not trigger a huge crisis and one that does, might be called resilience and critical mass. Resilience basically means that adversity does not necessarily trigger deterioration because of the energy and resourcefulness with which people address a situation and overcome its effects. Let’s take hurricane Sandy as an example. This hurricane was hugely destructive and maybe also a rare event as it combined an unlikely number of weather event at the same time: it arrived at full moon when the tides are at its highest, a hurricane rarely ventures this far north at this strength and it collided with other strong weather fronts to turn sharply and make landfall in New Jersey pushing the huge storm surge straight into these urban areas. So it seemed to be a very, very rare event, hardly likely to be repeated. The probable outcome of this major disaster will be a more secure, sophisticated New York. Because of its intelligence, creativity, wealth, the people of New York will probably come out for the better after this storm. That shows resilience. But in the case of hurricane Katrina, almost entirely flooding the city of New Orleans, the blow was so hard that the city’s economy took years to recover from that fateful August and many of its citizens who fled, never came back and resettled in other parts of the USA in what would be the first wave of ecological refugees.

 

 

So what I am trying to tell is that the resilience of large parts of the global population and its environment has deteriorated a lot over the last decade, exhausting them and making them more vulnerable to shocks. A long list can be mentioned: Japan after the tsunami, bank balance sheets, Canadian forests, world food stocks, a lot of people’s net worth, youth unemployment, increased food, electricity and fuel prices, disappointing harvests, flood damage, house prices, stock prices, red tape, fatigue from work,  more elderly people, higher crime rates, labor migration, colder and wetter winters, heat waves, Beijing’s pollution, increased diabetes, obesity, traffic jams, forest fires, malnutrition, contaminated food, declining bee populations and the list goes on and on. So what I am implying is that an immense amount of smaller and larger events have decreased global resilience, making it more vulnerable to shocks, a bit like how HIV decreases the immune system making the organism vulnerable to opportunistic diseases. So the world has become more vulnerable to crisis and is more interconnected, so that crises connect to areas in a way previously unknown.

 

Yesterday I bought a pair of peacocks, they were very cheap. I love those magnificent birds fluttering around and screaming their territorial call from the piece of jungle that I am the owner or rather the custodian of. I should tell you about my secret hiding place. Surrounded by tropical forests, my ranch is a beautiful, two kilometer long green valley in the mountains west of Salvador de Bahia, secluded from the outside world, which you can only enter through a mile of forest dirt road. After a small pass-over you have a view of this valley which is one farm, completely private, with only the sounds of birds accompanying you. It feels like a small kingdom, comprising of native tropical forest (Mata Atlantica), pastures, cacao and a central lake, fed by twelve perennial springs and a rivulet. I fell in love with this valley because of its remoteness and its closeness to nature. The impressive forests, the enormous variety of birds, the stream with its beautiful wild flowers bordering it. A lot of local wildlife was lost to poaching as locals eat almost any animal, but with increased wild cover some animals are returning, like many species of of frogs and toads, the first armadillos have been seen as well as other small mammals, like the adorable agoutis, opossums and marmosets. The valley is full of humming birds and flocks of noisy parrots, as well as hawks, vultures and toucans and I came across a boa constrictor twice already. How lucky I was because the valley, which I bought two years ago as a place to retire, has escaped the brunt of the great drought which started to plague large parts of North Eastern Brazil and to date as not subsided. Because it is one of the highest and most forested valleys of the area rains have been more plentiful than in the surrounding area. While the valley is green and lush, just twenty kilometers from here in the city of Sant Inez, drinking water is being distributed by tanker trucks and the cattle has long been sold if it did not die. I bought the ranch in 2008 from an architect who could no longer keep up the property because of health reasons. The day he showed me this beautiful farm, I fell in love and have been ever since. Rumor has it that the jungle between the farm and the town of Amargosa to the north, still has a pair of jaguars roaming around. Of course I hope that one of my peacocks or calves one morning seem to have disappeared, taken by the big cats. In India their cousins, the leopards have a distinct appetite for peacocks, but it might well be that here they would not know what to do with these exotic birds.

 

Now why am I telling you all this, ah yes. The pair of peacocks came to me cheaply as people are starting to offer their belongings because they are running out of cash. A guy selling second hand motors to local farmers was trying to cash in on installments and came back empty handed after two days trying to collect debts, except for an offer of a pair of peacocks and a sound installation. The drought has depressed the prices of beef cattle, destroyed fields of beans, corn and cassava and just as if that was not enough the world cocoa price, the other major cash crop in the area, is at its lowest since six years, probably as a result of lack luster markets in Europe and North America. For the same reason I got hold of a great pedigree bull and a prize winning animal, seemingly the size of a rhinoceros was offered to me at about half value. Over at the local agricultural shop owned by the major and his brother, I saw brisk business while everybody was talking about the lack of rain. I told Silvio, the co-owner brother of the major, I was surprised that people still seemed to have money to buy all kinds of things, but his answer was very clear: everybody is buying on credit and no one is bringing cash. I am afraid to talk to my accountant how much is owed. Luckily my credit with suppliers is still holding. People are buying seeds and fertilizer to run to the fields the moments the rains start to fall, and they should fall soon right? It is already beginning of June!” ‘’Right’’, I said and left the shop wondering how long the local economy would hold up. The resilience of the area was being sapped and this town was only at the edge of the drought stricken parts. Imagine the situation a hundred kilometers further inwards where I saw carcasses of cows around dried up ponds. For the people I knew, life was getting tougher fast and for upwards of ten million others more in the Brazilian states of Bahia, Sergipe, Pernambuco, Piaui and Ceara. One million cattle has been lost so far and in Salvador the wages of day workers in construction are under pressure due to influx from the countryside, while inflation is gearing up, especially of food prices.

 

A young guy I talked to on the farm, his name was Rafael, actually was already back from the capital after trying to make a living in the big city. When I asked why, he said: ‘’I had work in a small cafeteria in Salvador, but the favela (Bairro do Paz) I lived was too dangerous for outsiders’’. He told me there were a couple of murders each week because of the drug war between gangs. These were often execution style killings for all to see or raids in the dead of night taking out members of a rival gang. But scarier for him were the guys, often high on crack, showing off raw power by gunning down outsiders for the fun of it. ‘’Sir, do you have work for me?’’, he asked me. A question that was asked to me many times lately. I didn’t, in fact I already had too many people working on my farm, but this was no time to let them go. He was taken in by his brother, a farm hand who lives in a house on my ranch now, not lacking food, but penniless and for now just in the waiting mode till things would turn out for the better. It seems that in the early stages of a crisis, people pull together, get more social, and share what they have with family, friends and neighbors. In fact it heightens their resilience initially. But after a while, fatigue sets in and things get scarcer. The clock for this 19 year old with hardly any formal education, was ticking. These simple people are optimists and have faith in God. They are not squeamish like the class where I stem from. But some things do get them grumpy. In Northern Minas Gerais almost the whole corn crop and a large part of the cassava and bean crops had been devastated. Beans, rice and ‘farinha’, cassava flour, are a staple in these parts of Brazil and come hell or high water, rice, beans and farinha must land on a farmer’s plate daily otherwise trouble is brewing. But farinha has more than quadrupled in price, beans have doubled. The shock of a high price price was absorbed some years back and wages had increased. But these items were a mighty set back to families here in the mountains. Still Brazil is on track for bumper harvests of soya beans and corn in 2013. So the problem is still local in an area the size of France, but the drought is slowly sapping these ten million people’s resilience and with the Brazilian economy stalling, a lot of the gains in the battle against poverty might be erased pretty quickly for a lot of people here in North-Eastern Brazil. It is just an insight of a crisis playing in a part of a large country that will, in itself not have a large impact on the world. Brazil is, in fact, in many ways much less vulnerable to immediate shocks of overpopulation and climate change than large parts of the planet.

 

But back to what I was talking about, the idea that a crisis builds up for years and even decades without much apparent symptoms until suddenly you reach a tipping point where things come tumbling down. The slow sapping of resilience is one, the second factor is that of critical mass. Critical mass first of all of people stepping out from a world of inaction to a world of protest, joining an uprising or blocking parliament when they decided that inaction will not allow them a decent life. The Arab Spring has been a major event where suddenly a tipping point was reached when a large amount of people suddenly decided that enough is enough and joined protests that were clearly dangerous to join. But they did it anyway. Other phenomena that have similar dynamics are bank runs and runaway inflation. The internet has played its part too. The incredible speed with which information is disseminated and people get organized through the social media is surprising governments around the world, despite large scale effort to try and control the internet.

 

Still, the moment of societal crises are as unpredictable as the eruption of volcanoes. While all forms of pressure both in volcanos and societies are measured and analyzed, the exact timing and force of the eruption cannot be predicted. It can be the suicide of a man, dousing himself with petrol and set himself on fire as the ultimate act of desperation and protest. Tunisian unemployed graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, at the age of 26, killed himself after his vegetable cart was seized due to insufficient licenses and insufficient funds to bribe the corrupt cops plaguing him. It was desperation, but it was also indignation and it triggered a wave of protest and revolution dragging with it the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen and undermined the authorities in Syria. In more than ten other countries larger and smaller protests ensued. Politicians in power reacted with force but also with promises for change. No theory could have predicted this event. Mohamed Bouazizi probably could not have predicted his own action when he set of in the morning to sell his goods. Yet his action somehow triggered a tipping point invoking angry action from otherwise quiet people into marching unto the streets to demand change. Mind you, the slogan of the Tunisian revolution was ‘’dignity before bread’’ even though food prices were putting a lot of pressure on people. People get angry when no matter what they do, they cannot get a minimum standard of life organized anymore and they get bogged down by the government that is supposed to help them. Anyway, critical mass was reached suddenly, taking the leadership by surprise and the political consequences were huge. But how much did it really change in the lives of the people agitating against their situation with indignation and calls for freedom and democracy? On the whole the situation probably changed for the worse in most instances. The Arab Spring was the beginning of a fragmentation of societies, because the causes that triggered it have only gotten worse since the unset of the protests. In most countries where the Arab Spring happened things have quieted down on a new unstable equilibrium at a lower level. Since the uprising had more to do with economics (and ecology in the background) it is sad to see that the economic problems of all countries where regime change took place, have increased. So what does that mean for the future of countries like Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen?

 

Take the case of Yemen, which is by far the worst off of these three mentioned. Only thirty years ago Yemen was a country full of friendly, hospitable and fun loving people with a population of around ten million. Tribes were fighting each other every now and then over valuable things like ground, water or gold. But that was more the effect of ‘’machismo’’, males who have to show their muscle, than anything. Now this part of the world is practically an ungoverned land of war lords with twenty five million inhabitants. With its streams and natural aquifers near depletion, the capital Sana’a, a city of two million might have to be abandoned because of lack of water. Wells of thirty meter deep provided the city with water in the seventies and eighties. Now wells are being dug of over a kilometer deep. Unregulated drilling, an exploding population and lack of water management in general have caused a terrible situation. Plans to focus on rainwater harvesting in the mountains have been abandoned since the Arab Spring uprising put the country in more disarray than it already was. In various parts of the country local tribes have blood feuds over wells and other water sources. Al Qaida and other fundamentalist groups have strongholds attracting young men to their cash and power. The country does not have the capacity anymore to absorb aid to reverse its scary water situation. Mass migration, increased armed conflict between tribes and starvation. Hundreds of thousands remain internally displaced after the uprising, while still a large influx from Somalians and Ethiopians crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden get stranded in Yemen on their way to the Promised Saudi Land. Millions are dependent on food handouts and more than a million children suffer from acute malnutrition and the situation is deteriorating fast. Need I say more? Basically the situation is hopeless. Yet we can’t ignore it, if not for moral reasons, for practical reasons of safety and security as he we have seen in Afghanistan. Somalia is a similar hopeless case even if the situation around Mogadishu is stabilizing after the African Union troops managed to rid the city largely of Al Shabaab, the local variety of Al Qaida at the cost of three thousands deaths amongst the multinational troops. Meanwhile a quarter of a million people have died there because of the drought in combination with anarchy.

 

What we instinctively know is that the world has become more shock prone, more is happening and more is related. Famines and wars and recessions are of all times, yet this time it is different. We know we are living in a time of more volatility, we are dancing on the edge of a very active volcano. We have seen these episodes before, like for instance the popular revolts of 1789, 1848, 1874, 1905 and 1917… But this time the stress that is building up is a combination of more and more persistent factors.

 

“To say nothing of what you lose, lose, lose, are losing, man. You fool, you stupid fool … You’ve even been insulated from the responsibility of genuine suffering … Even the suffering you do endure is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious. It lacks the very basis you require of it for its tragic nature. You deceive yourself.” (Malcolm Lawry in Under the Volcano).

 

For days I have been able to think reasonably clearly and yet again my heart, my emotions are taking over. Maybe it’s the cheap red Chilean cabernet again. It is a soft tropical night, with a bright moon shining over the calm waters of the bay of Bahia, where I now live on the island of Itaparica. Tree frogs and crickets play a gentle concert as the breeze rustles through the leaves and cools my skin. It seems I even have a truce with the mosquitos tonight. My two dogs, Mel, a dark female Rottweiler and Natan, a white spotted male Dogo Argentino mix Boxer lay slumbering at my feet. Life is good, peaceful, and abundant. Native Indians lived here once in thatched huts, eating fish, sea turtles and their eggs, manioc, avocados and açai berries. The Atlantic jungle reached to the beach with coco palms overhanging together with trees listening to beautiful names like Massaranduba, Jatoba, Vinhatico and Sucupira. Rumor has it that the local Bahian Indians had cannibal traditions related to tribal wars, maybe, where I sit, heads were severed a long time ago and offered to the spirits before being eaten. Both the Indians and African Negroes taken from West-Africa as slaves by the Portuguese colonists, always have had a reputation of being lazy and undisciplined and to date this quality persists in the local community. Or maybe they simply are the heirs to a society of hunter gatherers that never had to worry about work as getting into action when food was required was enough and it probably required a lot less time and a lot more fun to bag a few animals or pick a few fruits, than our modern lifestyle. So they could go back to their hammocks to laze the day away or make love or drink and laugh with friends. Maybe they simply had not made, what Jared Diamond called, the ‘’Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race’’, which is changing the hunter gatherer lifestyle for that of the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry. Maybe life was nasty, brutish and short those days, but the persistence with which my black friends, living in the oldest favela of Brazil, Tororo, going back to the 17th century, pursued their life of sleeping late, then looking for a solution of the day for money for food and beer, to turn slowly into an afternoon of a lot of banter with friends and flirting with girls, who did not mince words about their great sexual appetites, to turn to beer and music of which there never seemed a shortage. The alleys where they lived were largely made up of extended family. My beloved young friend Anderson counted as many as four hundred people as his relatives in the area and I would always joke with him that he was still living in an African tribe. In many ways he did. Resistance to the modern ways of the world, with time and discipline and targets to be achieved were wasted on him and his family. They had more fun than most people I ever encountered though their lifestyle was being crushed under the heavy weight of modernity living in a megacity, which had doubled in size just in ten years, now counting maybe five million including the suburbs of Camaçari and Lauro de Freitas. In fact San Salvador de Bahia de Todos Santos (the Holy Savior on the Bay of All Saints), as the full name of the city reads, the first capital of Brazil, way before Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, had been one of the fastest growing cities on Earth for the past ten years, bringing with it enormous construction of favelas and high rises, huge roads, enormous shopping malls, those modern temples of consumption and more humongous traffic jams and a scary level of violence amongst its marginalized dwellers. The city is famous for the invention of Brazilian carnival which basically was a riot of African gusto and passion for life against the monotonous Catholic processions of saints and Holy Mary statues. The mystical mix of Yoruba gods and goddesses with African rhythms gave birth to samba. To date half a million Bahians dress in white to celebrate the Yemanja, the Yoruba Goddess of the Sea. I find macumbas (voodoo rituals) being offered outside the walls of my house of anonymous locals who wish me good or evil. I used to love Salvador but in many respects I have come to hate it.

 

The last summer had been terrible, the hottest ever and the rains had stayed away too long. Even the trees seemed to grow into a shadow of their former self, the roots being unable to find moist deep in the ground. Both my wells ran dry. The rains had come finally and were more than abundant now. We had about 150 mm of rain the other day, just in a matter of hours, in fact, parts of the roof of the new soccer stadium of Salvador, ready for the 2014 World Cup was damaged by it. Here the beach was dotted with empty plastic bottles that had been flushed out of the island’s streams where locals had shamelessly ditched their waste. A sea turtle lay wasted and stinking between the rotting seaweed, strangled with what seemed a piece of nylon cord, part of a fishing net. How this island must have been paradise once, with colorful reefs, teaming with life and thick forests hiding many mammals and a riot of birds. Even the great cats would probably visit the beaches at times to enjoy the ocean breeze and escape the irritating insects for a while.

 

My spacious old house dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and is surrounded by age old mango trees giving us shade and birds and fruits and squirrel monkeys. It was designed to let the sea breeze gently blow through its windows from one side to the others and it still works, although it sometimes seems as if the winds die down more often and then it quickly gets uncomfortably hot.  Where are those paradises, those magic places where the quiet of nature and simple villages would overwhelm your sense of beauty and belonging? Is it because I am getting older and the world seems to holds fewer secrets? Does the magic of life wear off with age? Or has the world shed a lot of its magic just in this one lifetime, just in this one second in the day we call human history because of the transformation, the degradation our planet is going through? Maybe resilience has many more layers than just the visible? Maybe the strength of people is of much greater depth than that of simple psychology? Maybe all the experiences of all members of our species throughout the eons of hunter gatherer, early settlements, building pyramids and being mesmerized by the Gods, feeling the grueling battles of man against man, somehow are a reservoir open to you and me? How the light of modern life has grown dim on me, how I yearn to feel the might of Shiva and of old gnarled trees again. How I’d like the birds to sing to me again. What quality is it that is fading? What intensity is missing from this abundant life of travel, television and internet and food and wine and shopping malls and access to all knowledge and all fantasies of the world? Why do the echoes seem to get fainter, the colors seem to fade? How different is a healthy bird chirping away to convince partners to come and see for themselves from a sickly one that sits quiet under plant, waiting for this day of sorrow to pass. It seems sometimes we entered into a sullen twilight of sorts.

 

I remember the time that I stayed twenty years ago in a remote Muslim village in Bihar, India for about ten days or so in a house with walls made of mud, with many rooms. About forty people lived in its compounds, four generations in all, from crawling babies to a ninety year old, bedridden, but lucid and lively old lady, who actually died in peace during my stay. She had called for me just a few hours before she passed away. Apart from my friend she was the only one who spoke English. She asked me, a perfect stranger, to hold her hand a bit. With a whisper she trusted me that things had gone from bad to worse since the British had left. I stroked her long white hair before I left and she smiled with deep, deep dark eyes, wells of wisdom. Her burial was a simple affair, almost light hearted.

I shared the room with a goat which was taken in to be fed and treated like a family member until the day that Eid al Adha would come, the ancient feast of sacrifice, remembering Abraham slaughtering a goat after God rejecting the live of the son of this obedient subject, the famous prophet of the Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. I know now that goats dream and fart too, because he was sleeping under my charpoy, a traditional Indian bed made of wood and ropes and would wake me many a time with his horns hitting my bum or back and his odors which, though not as bad as those of humans or dogs were no happy surprise either. It probably was because they spoiled him with rich foods for which his goat guts were no match. Anyway, why I had to think of it, was because of plastic, or the complete lack of it in that village. They were so poor that almost all food was grown by themselves, school lessons were largely memorized or written down on small blackboards with chalk and the few clothes they would have, were never wrapped in plastic bags, because it were salesmen, walking the small clay pathways between the rice paddies, that would bring them and leave them for a few rupees, a chicken or two or a bag of rice or lentils. There was no electricity and so no television and because it was a mile or two away from the first motorable dirt road, none of the kids had ever entered a car. This village was about twenty kilometers away from the sacred place of Bodhgaya, the place where the Indian prince Siddharta Gautama obtained enlightenment and thus became the Buddha, whose vision changed the history of Asia. When I asked the villagers through my Bihari friend if they wanted to visit the world famous Mahabodhi Temple that was there, celebrating the great event, I found out that nobody in the village was aware of this sacred site so close to them. I convinced them to come with me and visit it and via, via I organized a ramshackle bus to bring us there, about twenty of us, mainly youngsters and a few adults. The trip was a complete disaster, because during our walk to the dirt road, we were overtaken by a hailstorm that whipped our faces and drenched our clothes. After that, when we were on our way in the bus, half my fellow passengers started throwing up (luckily largely through the open windows) because of the hefty motions the bus made during its ride over the horrible path and for all them, except my friend, it was the first encounter with a motorized vehicle. When we finally arrived in Bodhgaya, everybody was dry again, though some were coughing and sneezing. The smell of vomit had been washed away with water and some lemons we purchased underway. I lead my group through the imposing temple complex with golden Buddha’s and bodhisattvas, but none of them were very impressed. Luckily the day had warmed and the sun was out. The ice creams I bought for everyone, lifted everybody’s spirit and were a far greater highlight than the silly temple I had showed them. By the end of the afternoon, when the bus had returned us to the path leading to the village, my guests were singing Bihari songs, rather vulgar ones, according to my friend. While crossing the rice paddies again, a sweet young girl with a beautiful face told me, through the translations of my friend, that she sort of enjoyed the day but would much rather have gone to the cinema in Patna, because they heard great stories about going there. Everybody who was listening, agreed wholeheartedly. When we came home, the sun was hovering low over the seemingly never ending rice fields and although I knew I could never live there, the place in what was one of the poorest areas in India, had an enormous aura of simple happiness about it, its people as friendly as ever there were.

 

The next day, my friend and I set out on a tour on two borrowed bicycles. When we were at the point of leaving, his mother, a beautiful, regal woman carrying here cheap sari in majesty, came with freshly baked chapattis and two beautifully crafted daggers. Although we were going to look for signs and marks of leopards, the hills we were going to, were full of Naxalites, a type of Maoist gangs hiding in remote places all over Eastern India, sometimes attacking police stations, trains or richer citizens. She did not like us to go there as these people were evil and dangerous. But since she could not dissuade two adventurous young guys, she thought it best to arm us, because the world is incomprehensible and full of surprises. Apart from a flat tire, nothing untoward happened to us that day and we even found some scratch marks of a sizable leopard, since the spot on the sal tree was at the height of my face. We saw peacocks and langhur monkeys roaming wild that day, their curly tails flagging over them as they would run away on all fours at the sight of our bicycles. We also came across a rather large rat snake, a man size monitor lizard and a pond full of river turtles, but no Naxalites.

 

I never turned back to rural Bihar, I never missed it much either, but the days I spent there were of magic simplicity. The train ride that took me back to Calcutta was enough to kill any remnant of happiness still dwelling in my mind of those days. Overcrowded, stinking of diesel smoke and unwashed humans, bad food only cooked to make a small profit, that was the basic train experience and then Calcutta, Kolkata, that miserable city on the Hooghly river. What an ugly, untidy and polluted place, what a hell hole. Too many kids live on the streets, together with rats and stray dogs. Why do Indians make such a mess, why? I once visited a slum there to visit the family house of Ajay, a kid that might have been around ten years of age and had been living on the streets for at least half of that time, preferring that over the crowded hut his family was living in. He introduced me to his grandma, who, paralyzed from the waist down, had been lying under the family bed for two years now. After the visit I understood why he preferred the pavements over this place. He spoke a bit of English as part of his trade was begging in front of the most expensive hotel of the city, the Oberoi Grand, just around the corner from where I was staying for six weeks, finishing a travel guide of India. Ajay seemed completely unfazed by his predicament as a street kid and was full of confidence that one day he would have enough money to buy a bigger house for his mother and other family members plus a comfortable bed for his grandmother, so he would be able to move back in again. In fact he was rather fond of his free life and in many ways protected by the other street dwellers and shopkeepers, simply liking his radiant childish face and fun loving clownery. He was full of fantasy and great stories, partly because one of his jobs was to clean the wooden folding chairs in the local cinema, giving him unlimited access to all the Indian movies you could want. He could not read or write, in fact, when I invited him for a game of tic-tac-toe I found out that he was not even capable of holding a pen point to a piece of paper. It was a very important discovery for me to find out that it is hard to measure the depth of ignorance of people as much as it is to understand how much more intelligent someone is compared to you. The limitations of verbal communication between people of different backgrounds can be stunning, although the gap has narrowed due to common experiences like exposure to American TV and cinema. It follows that communicating over the most destructive storm humanity is to face, while being still abstract as long as the winds are not picking up, is basically impossible unless it is carried with emotions, with pain, with fear, or with dance and song. Those qualities seem much more universal as tools for communication. Should we sing and dance our problems instead of thousands of scientific articles on climate change? What is courage? How do you face destruction and smile like a hero, not like a fool, understanding what is coming at you? There is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times when miserable (Dante again). When are we going to connect the dots? The bill is getting higher with each hour we deny what is happening! Even if we cannot stop wholesale mayhem anymore, humans are tough and smart and will surmount the insurmountable somehow, but so much sorrow, so much suffering will have to pass first. And the world that will emerge will be another one entirely than the one we know now.

,

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

 

Of course several declined and collapsed civilizations have been documented. From the Western Roman Empire to the great Khmer kingdom and the Maya civilization. In all cases a complex array of factors played a role, such as imperial overstretch and internal strife, but in all cases economic decline was preceded by ecological degradation. In the case of the Khmers in what is now Cambodia and the Mayas in Southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras clear ecological problems preceded the final break up of these great states, collapsing into far simpler societies with smaller and more autonomous fiefdoms, with lesser technology and receding populations (sometimes, like on Easter Island, with no way out, collapsing to extinction). Rome at its height had a million and a half inhabitants. In the ninth century maybe twenty thousand were left. From the height of Rome to the Middle Ages human society deteriorated a lot albeit not after a single blow.

 

Jared Diamond, in his book ‘’Collapse, how societies choose to fail or succeed’’ (Viking 2005) describes the process of involuntary ecological suicide, ‘’ecocide’’ of these cultures following a similar pattern of population growth, intensified food production, over use of resources and spread to marginal resources like poor soil and finally succumbing to environmental degradation like deforestation and habitat destruction, soil erosion, water management problems, overhunting or overfishing and the introduction of exotic species as well as the effects of population growth and increased per capita impact of people on their habitat. These problems in the end in many cases led to a decline in food production, starvation, war, population decline and the overthrow of elites governing these societies. Diamond then follows that in the current situation we not only have all ‘’traditional’’ ecological problems to deal with but four new ones as well: climate change, pollution with toxic chemicals, energy shortages and full human use of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. He also points out that some societies have overcome their collapse or decline and have bounced back. But these are rare cases. So in the past twenty years we have already seen the collapse of Somalia, Rwanda and Darfur, all with roots in overpopulation and habitat degradation. With the collapse of Syria, Iraq and Yemen the circle widens and now we face not only direct state collapse of Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Egypt, the huge state of China will suffer severely from its degradation. That while the food situation in some of the most important other breadbaskets of the world, the USA, the European Union, Australia and Russia all see more and more volatile weather, slowly decreasing food security, while the bill for cleaning up after natural disasters is increasing and the bill for mitigating the effects of failed states, starvation and mass migration is running up quickly as well. Even if today we started on a complete program of rebuilding our economies on renewable energies, changing our food production to much more sustainable practices and bent our lifestyles to simpler les energy consuming patterns, revitalizing and reforesting millions of square kilometers of land, carefully managing our water resources so they would be sustainably used, protected what is remaining of our biodiversity and tried everything to stabilize the world population so it would top eight billion and taper off after that, we would still have to deal with increasing poverty, mass migration, failed states, aging populations, climate volatility and increased natural disasters, which would put enough stress as it is on our societies. So it is hard to see that the strong countries would start to implement these measures sooner rather than later, making more and more change practically irreversible. The world economy is in recession since the end of 2008 and chances are considerable that the financial system will collapse a second time, making change management all the harder to perceive and mayhem and decades of tragedy a very likely option for most parts of the world. Simpler societies will reemerge, much like the Middle Ages evolved after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It took the larger part of a thousand year before our economies were rebuilt enough to slowly equal and later overtake the once mighty empire in the awakening of modern science, the industrial and information revolution. This will happen again on a global scale, with different impacts locally and different solutions locally, but affecting everyone, everywhere, no one excluded.

 

THE PRICE TAG

 

“We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.”

― Immanuel Kant

 

Disappearing cities

 

With the process of global warming, overpopulation, increasing storms, floods and rising sea levels a lot of major cities are in trouble. This is also not a specter from the future. Just in the last decade alone New Orleans, Bangkok, Manila and New York have been hit by major weather disasters, none of them large enough (yet) to abandon them, but very damaging all the same. In the onslaught of things to come, many a city will need to be abandoned or protected at exceedingly high costs. Estimates to protect New York from a future storm surge of the magnitude of hurricane Sandy has a hefty price tag of twenty billion dollars. Poorer countries will have a hard time putting up similar sums to protect their cities from flooding.

 

We already mentioned earlier cities like Quetta and Sanaa which will probably become ghost cities within years because they ran out of water. But much larger cities are at stake, especially coastal cities.

 

The Manila metropolitan area with twenty million inhabitants is prone to a lot of cyclones and flooding every year, while located in a volcanic very active area, also runs the risks of being hit by a major earthquake, volcanic eruption or even tsunami. About three million of its slum dwellers are directly at risk of flooding and landslides. Manila does not have the capacity for change and will therefore be forced unto its knees by nature, dwindling in scope. As the linchpin of the economy of the Philippines, a problem in Manila is a problem for the country as a whole.

 

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh is another example of a city which will be more and more at risk to river flooding, tidal waves from cyclones and earthquakes. With a third of its fourteen million strong population living along the water’s edge, it is just a matter of time or nature will want to settle the bill which will reverberate throughout the whole country.

 

Mumbai, with about eighteen million inhabitants, including seven million slum dwellers is particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding and it lies on a fault line, making it prone to earthquakes. Most of the city is less than a meter above sea level. The city is by far the largest in size of its economy and India’s largest harbor, so any disaster for Mumbai would equal a disaster for India as a whole.

 

Jakarta’s metropolitan area is home to some twenty six people and forty percent of the city is below sea level, making about ten million inhabitants at risk of flash floods, especially along the dozen rivers that pass through it. It is likely that large parts of the city might have to be abandoned within a decade or so unless humongous seawalls are being erected within years.

 

The list of vulnerable metropolitan cities that will probably be partly or wholly moved or abandoned, includes Alexandria, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City, Lagos, Karachi, Monrovia, Bangkok, Miami, New York, New Orleans, Osaka-Kobe, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Rotterdam and many more. More vulnerable than these metropolises are second echelon cities like Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong in Bangladesh or Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Kenitra in Morocco, Atlantic City in New Jersey, USA  just to mention a few. It is reasonable to reckon with a large city or more per year that will get hit by a combination of extreme weather events and higher storm surges. The cities are pretty much divided over the world with both rich and poor countries sharing in the risk. The big difference of course is that in rich countries a more know-how and funds are available to take measures.

 

Yesterday I saw a beautiful statue of Shiva on the edge of the Ganges River in the famous Indian pilgrimage place Rishikesh relenting to the worst flash flood the Indians have seen in the Himalaya’s in living memory. Slowly the elegant statue fell and was submerged by the holy river in this ancient center of spirituality that first came to my consciousness when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones visited it in the sixties to be influenced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru that lived in this place. Possibly thousands of people perished in the mountain tsunami upstream. Higher up in the famous Kedranath temple was the only building standing in what used to be a pilgrims village. The temple is one of the most sacred shrines of the billion or so Hindus. It holds one of the Jyotilingams, symbols of the Hindu God of creation and destruction and it is said that those who attained the highest level of spirituality, see an immense light piercing the Earth and the sky without end.

 

As stated before many times in this book, that something is terribly wrong with our future. Some place the problems a generation or two from now, some, like me, believe that we are feeling the outer bands of a perfect storm of destruction already and the shit will increasingly hit the fan all around the world culminating into a more and more life threatening global crisis of epic proportion. But every large crisis consists of a multitude of individual crises of people losing their house, their work, their health, their spirit, their life.

 

A brilliant and scary analyses was given in 2009, when Professor John Beddington, England’s chief scientific advisor at the time, with his article 2030: A Perfect Storm. Based on an in depth analyses of world trends, it predicted that by 2030 the world will need to produce around 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 per cent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change. This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events. The article can be found on the internet and is an absolute must for anybody concerned with our future. It only has one flaw, the timeline of events is far too optimistic in my mind.

 

On 24 April 2013, Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to President Obama at the Launch of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy made clear that the Obama administration recognized the security threat posed by climate change:

 

‘’The national security impacts of climate change stem from the increasingly severe environmental impacts it is having on countries and people around the world. Last year, the lower 48 U.S. states endured the warmest year on record.  At one point, two-thirds of the contiguous United States was in a state of drought, and almost 10 million acres of the West were charred from wildfires. And while no single weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, we know that climate change is fueling more frequent extreme weather events. Last year alone, we endured 11 weather-related disasters that inflicted a $1 billion or more in damages – including Hurricane Sandy.

 

Internationally, we have seen the same: the first twelve years of this century are all among the fourteen warmest years on record.  Last year, Brazil experienced its worst drought in five decades; floods in Pakistan affected over five million people and damaged or destroyed over 460,000 homes; severe flooding across western Africa and the Sahel impacted three million people across fifteen countries–to give just a few examples among many.

 

The fact that the environmental impacts of climate change present a national security challenge has been clear to this Administration from the outset. The President’s National Security Strategy recognizes in no uncertain terms that “the danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe.  The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe.”

 

The Department of Defense’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, issued by Secretary Robert Gates, warned not only that climate change “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world” but also of the potential impacts of climate change on our operating environment, and on our military installations at home and around the world. A National Intelligence Assessment in 2008, multiple Worldwide Threat Assessments produced by the Director of National Intelligence, and numerous expert analyses have reached similar conclusions.  This underscores the need – for the sake of our national security — to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for the impacts of climate change.’’

 

In fact, the US military is already preparing for the effects of climate change on security. While in part, they focus on emergency response and monitoring in the USA and globally, they also prepare for violent civil unrest caused by the collapse of a major state like Pakistan or the vacuum of governance that can spread, in part due to epidemics or large natural disasters. The recent discovery of the monitoring of enormous data flows from hundreds of millions of people around the world, by the US government, might be in part preparation for the increasing instability of the world not just by terrorists.

 

Another high ranking leader, Admiral Samuel J Locklear, III, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, gave a striking answer when asked about the greatest threat the region faces: climate change. Locklear spoke to the Boston Globe on the topic after spending two days in the Boston-area talking to scholars and foreign policy experts on the situation in the Pacific. As Locklear told the Globe, the changing climate “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen . . . that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

 

Among the issues that the admiral cited as most concerning was the possibility that rising sea-levels result in the disappearance of whole countries, producing influxes of “climate refugees” in neighboring states. The certainty that climate change is a phenomenon to be dealt with has affected the way that the Navy interacts with the various countries in the Indo-Pacific region that will be affected by shifting weather patterns:

 

“We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue – even with China and India – the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he said. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.’’

 

All in all we see that states are gearing up to the handling of crises that could well be beyond the control of even the most solid ones, possibly leading to state collapse after a period of intense attempts to stay ahead of the situation. The overstretch that will come with it, will be in the form of crowd control on all levels, from controlling the streets of major cities and the borders of large crisis areas to the roads of large migration streams and major communication systems like mobile phone systems, social networks and other facets of the internet, overruling democratic controls in the name of security. Armies will be used to try and stop chaos, but that will not work for long as they will be swept away by the multitudes fighting for their dignity and life.

 

Some areas will be hit harder, like they already are: the band of countries from Myanmar to Egypt, the Sahelian and West African countries and the Horn of Africa and maybe large parts of North East China. Places that will be less interrupted by the bad combination of climate change, pollution and degradation of habitat, overpopulation, insufficient food and water are areas in South-America and Europe, although the Mediterranean countries will see more insufferable heat waves, droughts and stress on their food and water systems. Both the USA, Canada and Australia will be hit hard by the effects of climate change and freak weather, but they have the resources to fight it, for now. Japan is a bit of an exception: it is well located, rich and well prepared but located on one of the worst hotspots of geological instability that has proven to be a major liability.

 

A small minority still thinks that there is nothing wrong, but to them we can simply tell them: listen, if we, the believers that the global social, political, economic and ecological system is breaking down, are wrong, the future is going to be bright. But how can you take the risk that we are wrong. If we are right, humanity will encounter problems, compared to which World War I and II and the Great Depression were mere walks in the park on a sunny afternoon. So even if there is a chance this book and the opinions of thousands of people much more educated than me, is complete nonsense, there is a chance that it is not and then you have to take all measures possible to stop it. The larger problem is the ignorance of the majority of people about what is coming. They go about their business as usual, struggling to resolve their daily problems and not understanding why life is somehow getting tougher for them day after day. And with every day we wait to take measures, the damage is increasing.

 

Our reality has become so intertwined and complex that no-one had the brains or the systems to understand what is going on, let alone manage it. On the other hand common sense quite often tells us basic truths about our situation. For that we only need to use our eyes, ears and brains. We should not be fooled into the idea that scientists, politicians, bankers and economists know the answers better than we do. We might ask them for some explanation of detail, but the basic truth about our time, we all know. As president Kennedy put it once: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” We all breathe the same air and we all need clean air, nutritious food, plentiful water, clothes and houses to shelter us, medical care to prevent and cure our many diseases, education for our youngsters and a morality that makes us understand that we are part of an ecosystem that nurtures us, but could kill us all the same if we mess with it as we have. Where socialism was based on too rational and too selfless an image of men and women, capitalism is based on an image of too selfish, too greedy a people. Both do not serve as a new economic model, which is an ecological model where people know they are embedded in and nurtured by nature, culture, society that will care for them if we care back and understand how we are part of these larger entities. We will need a simpler world, where not greed but need is the basis of our production and where wealth is not defined as the accumulation of goods and money, but sought in the happiness of a balanced society at peace with nature and itself, where each child, no matter where born, has at least the opportunity to have a life that takes care of its basic needs. In fact everything of real value needs protection because it is defenseless, whether it is children, clean nature, rare animal species or the poor.

Now, the high priests of economy today will tell you that the best way to establish this is to ‘’let the free market do its work’’. But as this is one of their most important gospels, it is also a false one. Of course the so called free market has proven to be very efficient delivering goods and services, no doubt. However it never was and is not now working really as a free market, as it is embedded in lots of laws and regulations, to limit its ferociousness. Major movements to tame the forces of the free market have been the abolishment of slavery and child labor (although both only in law, not in practice for tens of millions, mainly in the developing countries), tariff barriers to protect local industries, minimum wages and other regulations to protect workers, and a bunch of other rules. The one thing that could have improved our current situation a lot, was if we decided a generation or so ago to incorporate the costs of cleaning up after a fabrication process for a long time. Like when you take a barrel of oil out of the ground, the cost of sequestrating the CO2 from the atmosphere which would be released, should have been paid at source as a tax to keep our planet clean. It might have doubled the price of a barrel and therefore would have left us with a much greater areal of renewable energies.

The voraciousness of our economic system, together with population growth and its destruction of natural habitat, the industrial revolution and its polluting effects, and the effects of our inventions through science have led us now to a point where we have to brace for impact, for the system will collapse. If that is so, what does that say about the sciences, which brought us where we are, bringing us to the brink of destruction? Where did our wisdom hide that we let it come this far? What oversight will we need in future from the wisest, not the smartest amongst us? The same goes for these largely unbridled economic forces that produced the chaos we are in. The so called free market forces will not lead us out of the mess, it is part of the reason why we are in it and it would have been helpful if it had been much more regulated a long time ago by the forces of wisdom and respect for our planet, which it wasn’t. So now we have entered in the first phases of the largest crisis in the existence of humanity. But islands of hope will remain and reappear with smarter but simpler economies, based not on the pursuit of wealth, but on the pursuit of happiness, a caring society. But it is all hands on deck for the storm to come and the reconstruction in a new way that will be a gigantic challenge.

 

Let’s see where we are now. The interest the Bank of England charges is the lowest since its creation in 1644. The central banks and government of USA, Europe, Japan and China have injected free liquidity into the system by the tens of trillions of dollars. The crisis has not gotten this bad yet, simply because it has been propped up with all kind of measures that come down to printing money. The central banks have done the right thing to avoid a worldwide economic depression for now, but it might simply be that they have only delayed what is unavoidable as the current financial economic system is inherently instable and increasingly so because of the increasing ecological pressures. Maybe inflation has not gotten out of control yet, but government deficits, central bank balance sheets, unemployment, stability in general has deteriorated at hundreds of millions of people lives and their financial situation has been hollowed out, like old willows that appear alive, but can fall with the next storm. In the USA about fifty million people are on food stamps. It is all nice to see that GDP in the States is back up, but does that really affect the lower income half of the population there? The unemployment rate is falling, but have you looked what kind of jobs are added? The total amount of wealth destruction of the 2008 crisis amounted to tens of trillions of dollars also and although the stock markets are roaring to new highs as I write this, the markets have been propped up just by injection of new liquidity that has to go somewhere. The disconnect between the valuation of assets, the functioning of the financial markets and real economic production and the financial situation of hundreds of millions of households is humongous. The whole world economy is hooked on steroids in the form of the Central Banks printing trillions of dollars of money and any hint at the possibility of slowing down the printing machine is making the addict tremble and shake. The current financial system hurts the economies of real people, except for the top what, 1, 2%? Hedge funds know how to make money with their clever tricks, basically betting on large swings in the value of important items like food, commodities and on upswings guaranteed by the behavior of central banks and governments. Since European states and large banks are too big to fail, betting on them being supported makes billions of dollars for these clever actors.

So while we do have some positive things to report, like the revival of the US economy so they can start to focus on the really scary problem, almost all vectors are heading south.

 

THE PRICE TAG

 

Strangely enough, the costs of extreme weather events, deteriorating air, soil and water, the failure of crops and the millions of small problems that people face, from having to repair a levy or digging a deeper well, from increased cancer and respiratory diseases due to pollution to silent migration caused by habitat degradation, or due to massive damage like in the case of the flooding of New Orleans does not greatly affect the calculation of the all-important GDP, measure of our economic health in the current system. While the immediate impact can be measured through insurance claims, estimates of government and private spending to repair the damage, a lot of the costs are actually entering back into the GDP as purchases, while it does not acknowledge for the fact that this spending could have been moving the community forward if the damage had not happened in the first place.

 

So even if the effects of a storm or a drought are measured, a lot of the costs do not enter into the damage assessment, especially not the damage in the long run, which can affect people, communities and whole countries leading to less resilience. At the same time it hardly influences GDP and seems as invisible for those not directly affected as climate change. But the costs are really there and current estimates from the Climate Vulnerability Monitor puts the current costs from climate change already above one trillion dollar and rapidly rising.

 

According to sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, a rise in temperature by one degree centigrade in Bangladesh might give a productivity loss in farming of as much as ten percent, equivalent of four million tons of rice and other grains or about two percent of GDP. That is only the visible cost, not the cost of migration to the city, increased occurrence of diseases and conflict because of hardship.

 

The cost of the effects of climate change, rising seawater levels, floods, droughts, storm, forest fires, desertification, the effects of pollution and falling soil productivity, to mention the most important, are already enough to be a drag on the world economy trying to get back up after the immense blow of 2008. Just the great drought in the USA in 2012 might have shaved off one percent of GDP. The impact all these events have on health care systems alone, is immense and quickly rising. Just imagine the ‘’invisible’’ costs to the health of a community after a flood due to water borne diseases carried by raw sewage contaminating drinking water, toxic chemicals entering into waterways, ending up in the food chain or increased respiratory diseases and allergies due to mold in waterlogged houses and furniture. Not only are these costs for the health care system, but also affect the productivity of tens of millions around the world. A funny example was the explosion of athlete’s foot during the 2011 Thai flooding, with a hundred thousand people needing treatment in Bangkok alone and the accidental release from a farm of hundreds of crocodiles trying to avoid their fate as future lady handbags or expensive cowboy boots, leading to frantic capture missions by police who should have been doing rescues.

The indiscriminate and chaotic use of millions of doses antibiotics during major floods to avoid and treat water borne diseases alone, impacts our future as it accelerates the creation of multi resistant bacteria. One of the greatest medical inventions of all times, and indeed one of the most important accelerators of the human population explosion, was the accidental discovery of penicillin and the invention of many more antibiotics after that.

But also here the tide seems to turn and more and more bacteria seem to fight their way back from an almost lost battle, which could soon mean the reoccurrence of large epidemics of respiratory and intestinal diseases as well as incurable sepsis, tuberculosis due to these new ‘’superbugs’’.

 

So the long term effect of disasters eats at the health, wealth, reserves and capacity to produce food, other goods and services of an affected community, in short, in its resilience to overcome life’s problems and organize a balanced life. Now all of this, will not or only for a minor part, show up in the GDP as a figure, but it does show up in the lackluster growth of GDP in the years after the disaster, except for the first period in which the visible damages are repaired. Whereas the first disaster might be overcome pretty rapidly if a resilient community is affected, a second one within, let’s say a decade will do much more permanent damage, because that community lacks the reserves, the energy, the capacity to overcome this again. In a world of increasing extreme weather effects, we will start to see more and more areas that are abandoned by young adults and the more wealthy people of an area, because they do not see a viable life in those areas anymore. Exactly these people are necessary to overcome the challenges. Of course these effects have always played a role in the history of disasters, but they are multiplying now, creating the holes in the tapestry of human society.

 

When I recently drove seven hundred kilometers through the interior of drought stricken state of Bahia in Brazil, I was horrified by the devastated landscape with dried up ponds, rivers and lakes and leafless shrubs, bone skinny animals and lots of skeletons on the farms along the roads. But in the area where the drought seemed worse, I also noted that almost all farms had a sign ‘’for sale’’ at their entrance. Tens of thousands of farm hands and farmers families have moved to the cities, to the capital of Bahia, Salvador and to the economic capital of Brazil, Sao Paulo, about two thousand kilometers away. Newspapers report that the area will need a decade to get back on its feet, provided of course that the drought does not reoccur.

 

The people who can, give up their home, move on, adding a small grain on the scale on increasing imbalances in the world.

 

Of course areas do bounce back from disaster. Take New Orleans, which was devastated by hurricane Katrina in 2005. The city’s population halved from 450.000 to 225.000 after the storm. Five years later and after the investment of about twenty billion dollars of federal reconstruction money, the city is getting back on its feet. The population was back up to above 360.000 a few months ago and the city has recovered to its former vibrancy rooted in its Creole and French cultural roots. Tourism, a major source of income for the city, has completely recovered.  Unemployment is low, in large part to the jobs created by the reconstruction funds. But the levy system is not completed till 2016, and the inflow of federal money is slowly decreasing. So even here, with this massive reconstruction effort, the question is still open if New Orleans as a whole city ecosystem will bounce back to its former self.

 

A variety of agencies in the USA have spent short of a hundred billion dollars since Katrina on reconstruction efforts after a whole series of disasters and New York is having a hard time getting all its reconstruction and improvement funds financed from congress since it was hit by hurricane Sandy. Even the resilience of the USA, the largest and strongest economy in the world, is slowly being degraded with regards to disaster relief.

 

The costs of climate change are therefore in large part still invisible and its current effects a drag on the resilience of communities that is not covered by the calculation model of GDP. It would be wise to start calculating our wealth more along the lines of a profit and loss and balance sheet model, the way companies are required to do. The costs of disasters could be taken as one time write off and the future reconstruction efforts put on the balance sheet as liabilities. The assets of a country could include not only structures, like houses, factories and hydroelectric dams, but also forests, agricultural land and mineral wealth. A forest fire would decrease the assets as would the deterioration of agricultural land do. The costs of spewing CO2 in the air would have to be calculated as well and if not spent on measures to remove them, could be on the side of liabilities. If looked at our balance sheet and profit and loss sheet this way, we might find that despite a largely flat GDP, our balance sheet has exploded and our wealth has been steeply declining since 2008.

A NEW BALANCE

“Son, a real battlefield lacks dignity and honor. When lives are being spent—actual human lives—those high-minded concepts lose their meaning. All that matters is victory. If you have blades, you’ll use blades. If you have rocks, you’ll use rocks. If there’s nothing but sand, you’ll throw the damn sand. A true war is only waged when men don’t want to live to see what failure looks like. You do what it takes to win. You go wherever necessity takes you.”

― B. Justin Shier, Zero Sum

 

If it is true what I have written in this book, we are at the onset of the greatest war humanity has fought. It will be a war waged at all fronts, from real wars between people fighting over declining resources to wars to restructure the financial and economic systems that have led us to the brink of collapse. It is also a war waged on our mindset as we somehow found out that the side effects of our ingenuity, principally in science and invention, if left unchecked, will kill us. The chaos that is created by our economic system based on free markets and opportunity of individuals to accumulate almost infinite amounts of wealth, will have to stop. Wisdom has been out of fashion lately, it might be needed more than ever.

 

Life on Earth seems to be an ecosystem on many more levels than is usually assumed. Our mind, our body, our thoughts, our actions, our society, our science and economy, our atmosphere, the layer of plants and animals that surround us all seem to be interlinked and everything influences everything else. Religions always seemed to capture this somehow and with a God or Gods presiding over Life on Earth, a blanket of calm was laid over our daily desperations, suffering and hope of a better future in whatever reality left us accepting and respecting our current reality. It was the efficiency of the God principle that helped balance what was not balanced. There was war, there was misery and death, but it was made bearable and was given a meaning and even the most powerful man still slightly humble to an invisible master towering way over him. That master is our planet, which is our mother and father, our biotope, our home. The respect for our own living planet should become part of every breath we take, of every thought we think, of every action we take. If we would do so, the Earth just might let us live. It is the new generation that will govern us, that has to lead the way and mend what has been broken by the ones preceding them. They will have to fight this large war together with their children and grandchildren. But if they apply the right measures to mind, moral, society, economy and ecology, they might succeed. Instead of 2100 being a year which is forecasted as a time were coastal areas have washed away a large part of our cities, two billion people have starved of shortage of water and food production has collapsed to a fragment of what it is now, it might be a year where one to two billion people are living on our planet in a society at peace with its surroundings, something which would be unimaginable to you and me, the current inhabitants of the Earth, living now.

I hope we, the drowning, will uncoil the journey humanity has taken till now and stop at the early thoughts of man, which gave a lot of answers on how to live a happy, healthy life, embedded in creation.

 

 

“There can be no rebirth without a dark night of the soul, a total annihilation of all that you believed in and thought that you were.”

 

― Hazrat Inayat Khan, Thinking Like The Universe: The Sufi Path Of Awakening

 

“What you are the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world.”

 

— Jiddu Krishnamurti

 

So the message of this book is simple, the storm is coming and we will get damaged beyond our current imagination. But it is not too late to act and avoid total obliteration. But our whole culture, from the invention of fire, first cave paintings, the use of the wheel, bronze, iron, agriculture and animal domestication, from the building of houses and castles, ships and carts, from the first writings to philosophy, mathematics and astronomy, from the building of the pyramids to birth of Renaissance, to the explosion of science and industrialization, to the internet and all that is to come, it all started with consciousness, thoughts and a passion for life. Those have been our greatest tools from the onset of humanity and those are the tools we will need more than ever to survive the onslaught that is unavoidable. We need a wave of consciousness to sweep around the planet like a tsunami in order to change how we feed ourselves, how we house ourselves, how we transport ourselves.

 

The transformation that will be triggered by all the chaos and exhaustion will be total, leading to a new era in human evolution. The laws of nature will not change, but the hubris of our scientific, economic, moral and religious beliefs will disappear in the utter disbelief of what will be happening to us. Although extinction is not immediately on the table, it is a real possibility none the less and almost a certainty in the next hundred years or so if we do not act now. Realizing this is of the utmost importance for our survival as we can start bracing for impact and slowly see the contours of a new humanity in harmony with the planet it belongs to. Bringing stability back to our house will involve the largest changes since humanity appeared on this Earth. The population will cave in and will stabilize at a far lower level. Our energy systems will become sustainable, our economic system will be based on need rather than greed. During the crisis that we will go through we will encounter the depths of our destructiveness surpassing the holocausts of the past. The population will decrease. We will emerge not as a proud people but as a humble people understanding that we are subject to the laws of nature, to the laws of our planet. We will also understand that our humanity, our wellbeing will be completely embedded in our relationship with and our caring of our world with everything in it, plants, trees, rivers, mountains, glaciers, animals and humans. Maybe large cities will be something of the future, maybe we will be living in much smaller communities connected with forms of smarter communication, I do not know. Yet, we will rediscover the enchantment of being in nature, which as always, will recover in a fashion of its own choosing. Left behind us are the cheap thrills of excessive material consumption. Ahead of us are new limitless journeys of our creative mind and that of space ship Earth through the Universe.

 

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